Review: The Fire That Took Her Is a True-Crime Documentary Meant to Enrage and Inspire

This is a documentary you won’t soon forget, and that’s exactly the point. Filmmaker Patricia E. Gillespie (The Devil You Know doc series) walks us through one of the most horrific and singular murder cases in American history, one in which the victim lived long enough to testify in the case against the person who caused her death. An MTV Documentary Film, The Fire That Took Her tells the tragic story of young mother-of-two Judy Malinowski, whose ex-boyfriend was supposedly driving her to a drug rehab facility when the two get in an argument that ends with him dousing her with gasoline and setting her on fire in Gahanna, Ohio, in 2015.

Although almost the entirety of her body suffered damage and doctors said she had a 110 percent chance of dying from her injuries, Judy survived nearly two years, long enough to regain her speech and give sworn testimony to her attorney and her ex’s defense lawyer that was effectively banked until after her inevitable death, after which her ex was officially charged with a homicide. While the facts of the incident are gone over in precise detail (including ATM security camera footage that shows Judy being doused and lit on fire in blurry but still shocking detail), and the filmmaker interviews nearly everyone involved in the case (family members, attorneys on both sides of the case, friends), the film is more than just a true-crime retelling. Gillespie also takes a hard look at Ohio’s archaic law that can only give domestic abusers a maximum prison sentence of 11 years for doing any harm that doesn’t result in death (Judy’s ex was convicted of aggravated assault before she died, but because he pled no contest, she was never allowed to testify), and the efforts to change said laws in the wake of Malinowski’s death.

The Fire That Took Her does not paint Malinowski as any kind of saint, and there are a few details about her life that are left unanswered (that have nothing to do with her death, but do seem to factor greatly into her life story) that I’m guessing many viewers would like to know. Even still, the film does not back away from allowing the severely scarred Judy from telling as much of her story as she’s able. She's on screen to make certain everyone watching understands what the face of domestic abuse can look like and ask what it takes for law enforcement to step in before an actual killing or severe disfigurement happens. Not surprisingly, this was not her ex’s first crime (the man’s lifetime rap sheet is multiple pages long). The Fire That Took Her is a tough but necessary viewing experience that is meant to both enrage and inspire those watching, and it does both with unblinking courage on both sides of the camera.

The film is now streaming on Paramount+.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.