There are many reasons director Patricia E. Gillespie wanted to tell Judy Malinowski’s story. The most crucial was a desire to ensure she wasn’t forgotten. That’s a risk in domestic-violence cases, regardless of severity: statistics state 1 in 3 American women experience intimate partner violence during their lifetime. It’s so common that no one will be surprised to discover Judy’s murderer not only had multiple priors for that specific charge (amongst others), but that she had also called and told police she feared he’d kill her almost as many. It’s so common that hearing the specific details of this case while being pitched the film for review made me wonder if it was about the incident that occurred five blocks from my house in 2018.
But Judy isn’t from my neighborhood or my state. Her story takes place in Ohio, and the tragic act of violence she suffered (and ultimately succumbed to) happened in August 2015. And while the circumstances around and facts about it would be enough to warrant a documentary as both a memorialization of her and a cautionary tale for victims and perpetrators alike—insofar as the aftermath is concerned; Gillespie admits she was asked to either stop or remove Judy’s footage for being “too tough to look at”—The Fire That Took Her becomes even more relevant to audiences by setting legal precedent along the way: namely that a victim’s testimony can be declared admissible in a trial for their own murder. Yes, it’s as crazy as it sounds.
Given just hours to live, Judy ultimately survived close to two years in the hospital with excruciating pain. And she heroically did so not simply to help her own case and ensure her assailant was put behind bars for the rest of his life, but also to fight for the countless others who had to accept that the people who purposefully, maliciously sought to permanently deform them faced 11 years at most under Ohio law. Add an activism subplot to the rest: Judy speaks to the state legislature via video to make certain everyone with a vote on her resolution was forced to see the damage wrought, and why a decade or less would never prove an adequate length of punishment.
Thus it won’t be an easy watch, but that’s the point. We shouldn’t be shielded from the cost of such crimes or be able to look away and pretend they don’t happen daily. Judy’s family doesn’t get to forget; nobody else should either. In many respects, this film is about them as much as it is about her—they will be the ones left scarred and still fighting long after she is gone. It means something, too, to hear the details from them rather than just the detectives and lawyers involved in the case. Because Judy wasn’t perfect: she became addicted to painkillers after surviving ovarian cancer and soon moved towards heroin. Family provides context the law often rejects.
Case in point: Judy’s mother explaining that the state refused to help cover the millions of dollars in hospital bills her daughter racked up due to her having an illegal substance in her body, regardless of it having no bearing on injuries. That level of black-and-white thinking is what made it so a judge who explicitly states she’d like to give Judy’s assailant more than 11 years can’t. It’s why his defense attorney can smugly recount his experiences from a purely pragmatic place of doing his job by exploiting loopholes and leaning into the process’s theatricality to push reality aside and paint an alternate picture that best suits his client. If one piece of the puzzle goes missing or sideways, justice falls apart completely.
Having that defense attorney on-camera postmortem is therefore very illuminating because it begins to show just how easily the system can be abused, and why so many innocent people who couldn’t afford experienced counsel wind up in jail on trumped up charges. Hearing from him, the prosecutor, and lead detective proves an infuriating education; Gillespie expertly splices their accounts together to provide a full understanding of just how complicated a cut-and-dry case (there was surveillance footage showing how Judy’s boyfriend poured gasoline over her head and set her aflame) can become. Letting Judy’s mother, sister, brother, and two young daughters speak on her behalf, conversely, adds back the humanity necessary to remember these are real people. This could happen to you.
While it would be easy to dismiss the package in which these interviews and recordings arrive as conventional, the subject matter can’t help but elevate material beyond our objectivity. Because it takes skill to edit everything together in such an emotionally resonant, narratively dramatic way. Gillespie isn’t merely providing the facts in a linear matter. She’s moving from prosecution to defense, memory to testimony, and between past and present. And she does it without a shred of manipulation. Judy’s sister is allowed to say she thought her mother selfishly pushed her daughter to stay alive and endure the pain rather than let her rest. Judy’s daughters are allowed to be angry at how some truths were kept from them. They’re all doing their best.
That includes Judy too since—her mother’s desire aside—she is the one who stayed alive. She’s the one who had to deal with the pain on a good day full of sedatives and painkillers and agree to purposefully embrace the bad to go on record (her medication had to be limited below a specific threshold for her to be deemed of “sound mind” for the deposition). It’s nothing short of heroic and heartbreaking and important—both because of how laws in her name are still being planned to go before the US legislature and because audiences need to remember that victims of domestic abuse deserve to be given as much benefit of the doubt as their abusers. Being an addict shouldn’t disqualify you from receiving life-saving protection.
The Fire That Took Her opens in limited release on October 21 before streaming on Paramount+ in 2023.