There are abusers, there are killers, and then there are heinous monsters like Michael Slager, who on Aug. 2, 2015, set his girlfriend, 31-year-old Judy Malinowski, on fire. The resident of Franklin County, Ohio suffered burns on more than 95 percent of her body and yet, astonishingly, survived. And it’s her story—and agency—that’s restored by The Fire That Took Her, director/producer Patricia E. Gillespie’s infuriating and heartbreaking documentary about Judy’s unthinkable ordeal, and the courage and strength she exhibited in trying to make a difference while she could.
A wrenching film whose Oct. 21 theatrical debut is aptly timed to National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, The Fire That Took Her begins in horror, with footage—from two ATM cameras—of a figure engulfed in flames behind a Speedway gas station. The frantic 911 call that plays over these images only heightens the spectacle’s dreadfulness, and Gillespie’s subsequent prolonged revisitation of this material makes it no easier to stomach. When played in full, it depicts Michael’s black truck driving up to the Speedway, Judy and Michael arguing to the point that she throws a soda cup at him, and Michael dousing her with a canister’s worth of gasoline and—after exiting the frame for 30 seconds—returning to use his lighter to ignite the fluid.
Even at a fuzzy distance, this action is the stuff of nightmares. Detective Chad Cohagen admits that, for a long time, he couldn’t stop dreaming about Judy. In the immediate aftermath of the incident, however, Cohagen and fellow officers visited the hospital where both Judy and Michael were taken, and The Fire That Took Her presents body-camera scenes of Cohagen interviewing Michael in his bed, his neck, arms and torso covered in tattoos and his face plastered with a grimace. Michael attempts to sell a self-serving version of reality in which he poured gas on Judy as retaliation for her pelting him with soda, and then accidentally burned her when he went to light her cigarette. Cohagen doesn’t buy that, telling him outright, “We know what happened.”
From the get-go, there’s next to no doubt that Michael deliberately inflicted this misery upon Judy, which is as unthinkable as Judy’s condition is downright shattering. Through both photos and video—first of Cohagen questioning her about Michael’s culpability, and then of her hospital-bed torment—The Fire That Took Her depicts post-attack Judy in unflinching close-ups. Even the stoutest viewers will find it immensely difficult to avoid shedding tears at her ruined state. Her face charred and scarred to the point of looking skeletal, her ears missing and her eyes distant and distressed, Judy is a vision of unspeakable pain and suffering, and as her nurse Stacy Best states, it’s a “miracle” that she managed to survive at all—especially after being in a coma for seven months—much less that she regained consciousness and communicated with those around her.
Much of The Fire That Took Her is told by Judy’s grief- and regret-stricken mom Bonnie Bowes and her sister Danielle Gorman, along with additional commentary from her two young daughters Kaylyn and Maddie, prosecutor Warren Edwards, and Michael’s defense attorney Bob Krapence, who futilely tries to contend that Michael didn’t mean to do Judy harm. That said, Krapence is well aware that any jury that heard Judy’s tale would immediately want to throw the book at his client. Thus, when afforded the opportunity to take a plea deal that would net Michael 11 years behind bars—the maximum sentence allowed in Ohio for aggravated arson and felonious assault—he pounced on it, all while knowing that should Judy pass away, a murder trial would ensue.
The Fire That Took Her is an indictment of a criminal justice system that affords insufficient punishments for domestic abusers, just as it’s a stinging censure of law enforcement’s refusal to do more to protect women against brutal boyfriends and spouses. On top of that, the fact that Judy, post-ovarian cancer surgery, got hooked on Oxycontin (and eventually turned to heroin) makes the film a condemnation of Big Pharma, not to mention an all-too-familiar portrait of the sprawling mess caused by substance abuse. As is soon revealed, Michael was a dangerous criminal with a record a mile long who enabled and exploited Judy’s drug problem in order to control her before the attack, and used it to discredit and slander her in court. What emerges, then, isn’t just the story of a wicked crime, but of the various unjust and misogynistic forces that conspired to batter and beleaguer Judy.
The big twist in this dreadful saga is that Bonnie and Edwards, recognizing that Judy wouldn’t live and desperate to restore her voice, convinced a judge to allow Judy to testify via deposition. In effect, she became the prime witness in her own future murder trial. In that footage, Judy—in outright agony from the lowering of her pain medications—recounts that fateful August day’s events, describing Michael’s “completely evil” demeanor as he poured gasoline over her head, down her back, and into her throat. “I just remember crying and begging for help, and he lit me on fire and the look in his eyes were… his eyes went black. Literally,” she wails, later confessing, “It’s terrifying to feel this way, and it’s terrifying, also, to be disformed in certain ways. My whole body hurts.”
So damning and wrenching is Judy’s account that it’s no surprise Krapence convinced Michael to plead guilty and accept life in prison—which was Judy’s wish for him—rather than face the possibility of the death penalty at trial. In that regard, justice was served, and more heartening still, Judy’s reform efforts proved successful; in September 2017, Judy’s Law went into effect, adding additional prison time to offenders who deliberately disfigure victims. Nonetheless, there’s little uplift to be found in The Fire That Took Her, which illustrates the abject ghastliness of domestic abusers, the unfair systems that ignore and shield them, and the individual, familial, and societal carnage wrought from the mistreatment of women—a notion ultimately hammered home, in poignant fashion, by a reverse-chronology montage of home movies that devolves into red-hued celluloid ruin.