The Versace 'American Crime Story' is a chilling thriller

Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan. (Photo: Jeff Daly/FX)
Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan. (Photo: Jeff Daly/FX)

On July 15, 1997, fashion designer Gianni Versace was just coming back to his Miami home after a morning walk when he was shot to death on the street by Andrew Cunanan, a petty thief, con man, and, it turned out, a serial killer — Versace was only his biggest-name victim. This is the subject of The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, the new miniseries that starts Wednesday night on FX. It’s another big-canvas, pop-culture epic overseen by producer-director-writer Ryan Murphy, and features an exceptional performance by one of the performers Murphy made into a star on Glee: Darren Criss, as a chilling Cunanan.

At the start, the production goes back and forth between the story of Versace (played with skill and a notable physical resemblance by Edgar Ramirez), seen initially at the height of his worldwide fashion fame, and Cunanan, angry and miserable, living an impoverished street life. It’s fun to see Penélope Cruz do such a good job of inhabiting the platinum-blond hair and pouty poker-face of Versace’s sister, Donatella, and Ricky Martin exudes a lot of smooth charm as Antonio D’Amico, Versace’s significant other. As a fashion heathen, I appreciated the way Murphy and novelist Tom Rob Smith (adapting Maureen Orth’s book Vulgar Favors) vividly sketch the reasons Versace was considered such an innovative designer, and as the nine-part series proceeds, there are occasional jumps back in time for us to witness Versace’s youth and the hard work that went into building his empire.

The real focus of Assassination, however, is on the assassin. The majority of this season’s American Crime Story (following the Emmy-winning The People v. O.J. Simpson) is a deep exploration of Cunanan. A charming gay man who used his sexuality to both attract and exploit, the Cunanan as presented by Murphy and Smith is a tortured soul for whom we cannot ultimately feel much sympathy. For long stretches, Versace disappears from the production so that we can meet some of Cunanan’s other victims, such as Cody Fern’s fledgling architect David Madson, and Finn Wittrock’s poignant take on Navy veteran Jeff Trail; their stories are told with nearly the same degree of thoroughness as Versace’s.

Along the way, Murphy and company tell a cultural and political history of gay strife, from the AIDS epidemic to the fight for gay marriage to the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The fractured narrative timeline — the story is told in reverse chronological order, jumping back and forth, here and there, across the trail of Cunanan’s various crimes — can sometimes seem gratuitously confusing, but once you get used to its rhythm, this American Crime Story has an irresistible pull.

Versace is filled with excellent smaller performances, such as New Girls Max Greenfield, so fine as a slimy South Beach hustler who briefly partners up with Cunanan, and M*A*S*H’s Mike Farrell, superb as Cunanan’s wealthy older victim Lee Miglin, portrayed here as man pathetically grateful for Andrew’s condescending attentions. With the Simpson miniseries and now Versace, it may be that Murphy has found his true métier: The true-crime genre anchors his sometimes wild flights of fancy to enough solid facts to give his lyricism weight — dramatic gravitas.

The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story airs Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. on FX.

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