Errol Morris may have pioneered the genre of non-fiction investigative thrillers with “The Thin Blue Line” — and the “Paradise Lost” trilogy continued it — but the past 12 months should go down as the next stage in its evolution.
Last fall, the blockbuster podcast “Serial” delivered its journalistic investigation into a questionable murder trial with a bracing episodic format; “The Jinx” followed suit by transforming the deranged Robert Durst into the star of his own ongoing horror show. Now comes Netflix’s “Making a Murderer,” another series based around gruesome murders and conspiratorial allegations that fewer people know about. It not only consolidates the bizarre events of a small town American community; based on the four episodes previewed for this piece (two of which premiered at DOC NYC), it may actually have the power to change them.
The ultimate counter-programming to the opening weekend of “Star Wars” when Netflix premieres all 10 episodes on December 18, “Making of a Murderer” collects a decade of filmmaking into a compelling hourlong format. Less whodunit than did-he-do-it, co-directors Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos track the winding odyssey of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man exonerated of one crime after nearly two decades only to wind up accused of another one.
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In a succinct prologue, the first episode summarizes Avery’s troublemaking teen years, which culminated in a rape accusation disproven decades later by DNA evidence. Hardly more than a year out of prison and rebuilding his life in sleepy Manitowac County, Avery was then accused of murdering 25-year-old photographer Teresa Halbach — the very same day that his civil rights attorneys filed a dramatic federal lawsuit against the authorities that originally imprisoned him.
From there, “Making a Murderer” slowly unfurls a series of twists that complicate the ambiguity in play: Veering from footage of tense interrogation sessions and courtroom exchanges to heated phone calls between an imprisoned Avery and his infuriated relatives, “Making a Murderer” keeps advancing its network of mysteries. However, the story grows increasingly fascinating less for the various facts and suppositions tossed around than the colorful midwestern characters who dominate it. Like a real-life “Fargo,” the show’s ensemble is defined by midwesterners whose folksy demeanor belies deeper motives.
The filmmakers constantly pit those personalities against each other: From the smirking police detectives eager to put Avery away to the scowling relatives certain of his innocence, the town’s conflicting relationships cast virtually every detail in question again and again as new variables come to light. By the third episode, when Avery’s naive teen cousin Brendan Dassey comes forward as a key witness, there’s still hardly enough information to draw any firm conclusions. Every motive is suspect, and every suspect has a motive subject to change.
At the center of it all, Avery takes on the symbolic weight of the beleaguered, forgotten lower middle class. Stocky, shifty-eyed and bearded, he embodies the anxieties of the claustrophobic setting, in which the simple pursuit of leading a stable life yields daily struggles. At times, the filmmakers overemphasize the drab world, with a few too many cutaways to the junk yard where Avery worked and some aimless segments that slow down the pace. Generally, though, the eerie milieu conveys a deep poetic tragedy no matter the truth surrounding Avery’s situation. When he confesses on a prison call that he’s “sick of suffering,” it resonates.
It’s premature to deem “Making a Murderer” a complete triumph without seeing all 10 installments, but its production constitutes a notable win for Netflix, which appears to have inherited a project too dense with details to work at feature-length. As an episodic interrogation of a flawed judicial system, however, it has room to explore. Is Avery the victim of corrupt authorities, a cold-blooded psychopath, or both? “Making a Murderer” implores viewers to keep up with each twist, and the result encourages binge-viewing with purpose.
“Making a Murderer” premieres on Netflix December 18.