Riley Keough, Lily Gladstone on gut-wrenching 'Under the Bridge' finale, 'terrifying' bullying

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With the conclusion of Hulu’s true-crime limited series “Under the Bridge” we know who savagely murdered Canadian teenager Reena Virk. But grasping the why feels like trying to tightly grip sand. How do you make sense of a senseless killing?

On Nov. 14, 1997, 14-year-old Virk attended a party at the Craigflower Bridge near Saanich, British Columbia. She was frequently “teased and ignored, for she was an uneasy loner, with her broad hips and nervous eyes,” Rebecca Godfrey wrote in her 2005 book from which the series is adapted. Riley Keough portrays the author, who died in 2022 from lung cancer. Virk “was dark-skinned and heavy in a town and time that valued the thin and blonde.”

At the bridge, Virk’s young peers surrounded the ostracized teen, extinguished a cigarette on her forehead, beat her so severely that her brain swelled, then forced her head beneath the water so that when she went to grasp for air she inhaled the pebbles discovered in her body instead.

A group of girls who participated in the attack were found guilty of assault. Two teens who continued to beat Virk after the first thrashing – Kelly Ellard and Warren Glowatski – were sentenced to life for second-degree murder. Ellard, who finally accepted responsibility for Virk’s death in 2016, has been on day parole since 2017. (Day parole allows the guilty to work or volunteer while serving sentences but requires a "return toyour community-based residential facility at the end of each day," the Parole Board of Canada explains.)

Glowatski, the only boy charged in the crime, had been living alone in a trailer after his dad moved to California, according to Godfrey’s account. He expressed remorse for his role in Virk’s death and was granted full parole in 2010.

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The "Under the Bridge" finale (now streaming) delivers one of the most heart-wrenching scenes of the series when a teary-eyed Glowatski (Javon "Wanna" Walton) tells Reena’s mother Suman Virk (Archie Panjabi), “I don’t know why I did it,” after she offered him forgiveness while visiting him in prison.

“I don’t know, Warren,” Suman responds. “Maybe if someone had shown you kindness earlier then my daughter would’ve lived.”

Lily Gladstone, who plays the fictional Cam Bentland, a cop and childhood friend of Rebecca’s, believes the scene likely draws from Suman and Glowatski’s real-life meeting as part of a restorative justice program.

"Seeing what he had to say for himself, it doesn't make things right or take away the pain,” Suman told the Vancouver Sun of the 2006 meeting, “but you can let go of the questions you have and put it behind you.”

Dusty Pace (Aiyana Goodfellow), far left, and Josephine Bell (Chloe Guidry), grow suspicious that their friend Kelly Ellard (Izzy G.) is involved with the death of Reena Virk after seeing the teen's boots in Kelly's closet.
Dusty Pace (Aiyana Goodfellow), far left, and Josephine Bell (Chloe Guidry), grow suspicious that their friend Kelly Ellard (Izzy G.) is involved with the death of Reena Virk after seeing the teen's boots in Kelly's closet.

Gladstone, 37, believes “there's a multitude of reasons,” an important one being that – except for Kelly Ellard (played by Izzy G.) – the assailants "come from very marginalized populations.” Virk’s so-called friends, Josephine Bell (Chloe Guidry) and Dusty Pace (Aiyana Goodfellow), who idolized gang culture, lived in a girls group home.

Gladstone says she experienced bullying in her own childhood, but “learned how to have compassion for people who were really mean to me. I learned to have an understanding that it's not about me.

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“Bullies are born out of positions where they feel powerless,” she adds. “So what is stripping the power away from that kid that is turning them into a bully? … Teenage girls and teenagers in general, when you're forming your identity, your place in the world, if you're not nurtured for your strength and how valuable you are, you're going to clamor for it. You're going to find ways to give it to yourself.”

Following her daughter’s death, Suman became an anti-bullying advocate but said in a 2010 interview with CTV Vancouver Island that "there’s just as much of it going on today as it was when my daughter was murdered, and I can even think back to when I was a kid. I was harassed because of my race.”

Riley Keough and Lily Gladstone in a scene from Hulu's eight-part limited series, "Under the Bridge."
Riley Keough and Lily Gladstone in a scene from Hulu's eight-part limited series, "Under the Bridge."

Keough, 34, says as a mom to daughter Tupelo, born in 2022, she too is concerned with bullying.

“She's not in school at all yet, and I think about it, and I'm a big sister to two teenage girls,” Keough says of her twin sisters Finley and Harper Lockwood. “Teenagers can be brutal.”

The problem is pervasive and has permeated social media, Keough acknowledges. “It's a different style of bullying that I didn't experience where sometimes they get bullied by people they've never met. It's terrifying, and no one gets away from it. I don't have a solution. I wish I did, but it's certainly something that I think about, and this (Virk’s death) is obviously the worst, worst version of that.”

Virk “became, very unfortunately and tragically, a victim of other people's pain,” series creator Quinn Shephard says, “and they took it out on her.”

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Under the Bridge' stars on finale, 'multitude of reasons' Virk died