[Some spoilers for the first three episodes of “Making a Murderer” follow.]
It’s high times for true crime, between this week’s debut of the second season of NPR’s “Serial” podcast and the impending release of “Making a Murderer.” The latter, out on Netflix on the 18th, is about a Wisconsin man named Steven Avery who was convicted of rape, exonerated 18 years later with DNA evidence and subsequently arrested for a brutal murder while he was in the process of suing the state for his previous false arrest. Co-directors Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos were apparently inspired to look into the story after glimpsing a newspaper article about the case and say themselves that it’s the kind of thing you couldn’t make up: “If we had not been there to witness these events, we would have trouble believing they actually occurred,” they told the Hollywood Reporter.
After watching three episodes (out of ten) of “Making a Murderer,” I’m hooked. Ricciardi and Demos spent a decade making it, and thanks to the Netflix format, they’ve been able to roll out a complex and compelling narrative over ten consecutive hours. That’s a notable contrast with HBO’s “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” (1996). Directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, it ran for two and a half hours that felt — and indeed were — unfinished (two follow-up documentaries were later released). There are always unanswered questions that accompany a true-crime story like this one, but giving it ten hours of airtime makes it possible to address a lot more angles and issues.
What’s as yet unclear, three episodes in, is whether “Making a Murderer” is, as “Paradise Lost” was, the story of a community that railroaded innocent men into prison, or more of a huge question mark like “Serial.” Three episodes in, there’s certainly evidence to suggest that Avery and his supposed murder accomplice are victims of a corrupt system. But there are also serious questions about Avery himself: how he might have been psychologically changed by his lengthy first prison stay, and whether, after all, he might have done it.
In either case, “Making a Murderer” looks likely to make Avery a true-crime household name alongside the West Memphis Three (the men in the “Paradise Lost” case), Adnan Syed (the convicted killer at the heart of the first season of “Serial”) and Robert Durst of HBO’s “The Jinx.” Without wanting to trivialize the tragedy of the events, I’d say the Netflix series also bears some similarities to “Fargo” in its exploration of dark events taking place in an impoverished and rural Midwestern community.
“Poor people lose,” says a despairing Avery at one point, and Ricciardi and Demos certainly have no shortage of evidence of this. A known presence in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin (there’s even a street named after them), the Avery clan is low on education and employment, and certainly on money. When Steven is first arrested for attempted rape, they’re outraged — many of them have the same alibi for him, having spent the day doing a construction project with him — but their testimony is disregarded.
One weathered family member after another gives defeated interviews about Avery’s troubled back story: It comes to light that he’s long had low-key trouble with the law, including unsettling incidents in which he threw a cat near (or, likely, into) a fire, and ran his sister-in-law off the road and brandished a gun at her. But his arrest and conviction for a local attempted rape happen so quickly, and with so much disregard for another more likely suspect, that it’s easy to get on board with the conspiracy theory that he was set up by police officers who didn’t like him and spotted an easy opportunity to get him out of the way. And it’s awfully convenient that his arrest for murder (complete with those very officials finding evidence against Avery in his home) comes just as his civil case for wrongful imprisonment is being filed.
But the directors do a good job of not over-editing or steering their archival footage and interviews, letting interrogations of local law enforcement about the rape case (which would happen later) speak for themselves. The directors have also interviewed Avery extensively over the years, though he’s as downtrodden as the rest of his family, and not given to (or capable of) verbal flourishes. If he’s not guilty of the murder, you think, this man is doomed if he has to testify in his own defense.
In one of the most striking sequences, the directors also get access to the videotaped interrogation of Avery’s 16-year-old nephew, whose confession of involvement in the killing made for dramatic local news. Brendan Dassey, who by all accounts is a “slow learner” if not actually developmentally disabled, sits on a couch, head down, murmuring assent to the detectives’ suggestions of what took place. It’s a scene that calls to mind the coerced testimony of West Memphis Three member Jessie Misskelley. The difference is that Dassey’s is on video. The advances that have, presumably, been made in police policy since that case allow the directors, and us, a front-row seat at officials’ appalling mishandling of a minor.
The spectre of violence — against women, and in general — is a constant here. Predominantly, of course, there is the attempted rape of one local woman and the murder of another. A man who is eventually jailed for the rape commits another one while Avery’s in prison the first time around. There’s also a lower-key thread of violence that can be felt through the series, whether it’s Avery admitting that he waved a gun at his sister-in-law or saying that he “hollered at his wife a bunch of times” to quit drinking, or Avery’s mother, on the phone to Avery in prison, saying she’s going to punch him in the face for having depressive thoughts. “Making a Murderer” makes clear the link between poverty, lack of education, cyclical violence and prison. Less clear, three episodes in, is how Avery’s story will end up. Given the impact that “Serial” has had on the case of Adnan Syed , this series could be just the beginning.