Directors Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos expose how to make a murderer whilst they make detectives out of their viewers.
Making a Murderer is unlike anything I have ever seen before, and it’s not just me who’s got it bad. At some point, a thriller, horror or drama has made a sleuth out of the best of us as we rack our brains and speculate on whodunnit. But what if fact replaces fiction and a real case is presented us to us? This is precisely what newbie filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos did and the impact has being international. With thousands upon thousands tuning in to take a sobering rest-bite from festive excesses, America was hooked and the fever is vastly spreading. It affected some so powerfully they devised a petition addressed to President Obama, which has currently received over 300,000 signatures. The aim of the petition (which is the documentaries subject matter) is to appeal the imprisonment of Steven Avery following his 2005 conviction of first degree homicide. After having being wrongly accused in 1985 and subsequently serving an eighteen year prison sentence, he soon found himself back in custody roughly a year after his release, a year in which he successfully filed a $36 million lawsuit against Manitowoc County. This time he was the primary suspect in the murder case of Teresa Halbach who went missing November 4th, 2005. A strenuous trial found both him and his sixteen year old cousin Brendan Dassey responsible for death and they remain incarcerated to this very day. This is the subject-matter of the Netflix original series that is making waves; Making a Murderer.
TV shows, broadcast from Netflix or elsewhere, rarely if ever sparks such strong public reaction. Making a Murderer managed to stoke widespread anger, to such an extent that some viewers sprang into action and were eager to help acquit a man from a crime he supposedly did not commit and in doing so, condemn the inherently flawed justice system that failed him so profoundly. The power of the show exceeds that of a hashtag or another transient pop culture tit bit; people are seriously pissed off.
So what exactly is it that has provoked such a strong audience response? Well, if you haven’t already guessed, Making a Murderer is a true crime story that documents the extraordinary life of Steven Avery and his turbulent relationship with the American justice system. The film’s footage is carefully selected, dating back to 1985 and ending in present day. Using interviews, police statements, news report, recorded phone calls, footage from all trials involved (the 1985 and both 2007 trials of Steven and Brendan), Ricciardi and Demos present a comprehensive and convincing case that champions the innocence of Avery whilst simultaneously exposing countless systemic failures. The volume of their ‘evidence’ is so thorough that the film is watched more as a passion project than yet another crime bio. The involvement of the directors in the lives of the Averys translates itself into the emotional spine that is felt through every episode, and proves itself to be one of the most compelling aspects of the film. It is this sense of humanity that really invites to into the world of the Averys. We meet his mother and father whose ongoing strength throughout the whole ordeal is as inspiring as it is saddening. Our hearts break every time theirs do and the lingering shots of an exhausted mother bear a melancholia that sets the whole tone of the piece. We see the loves of Steven’s life enter and leave the picture, each time with a devastating emotional impact that is played out through the phone call recordings to his parents in County Jail. The emotional ante piques, however, when we learn the story of Brendan Dassey. The sixteen year old cousin of Steven Avery finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time when he is questioned rigorously by police. The merciless system- including, shockingly, his own lawyer who is later held accountable- appears to manipulate and coerce a young boy who is intellectually challenged with a reading age of four years old. From the footage provided, we see that he is clearly pushed into making false statements that incriminate both himself and his uncle. These scenes are almost unbearable to watch and makes it clear that for Ricciardi and Demos, it’s personal.
The prosecutors, the DA’s, the sheriff and the entire State they represent are (well deservedly) the bad guys of the piece who seem to relentlessly work to keep Avery down. The media also partake in their fair-share of villainy, declaring the man guilty before the case even got to trial. It sure does seem that the whole world is against this man and the viewer firmly stands on the side of the ‘innocent’ one.
If the State is the antagonist, Avery’s Defence duo Dean and Jerry are certainly the heroes. They win over the audience as we go step by step with them through the process of building a case right to the trial and hearings of Avery. The evidence they find and that the filmmakers present to the audience will often leave viewers aghast with horror (particularly at the end of episode 4).
For those of us who haven’t signed the online petition after watching the series, we have still played an active role in the case. Ricciardo and Demos have posited us in the jurors seat, but we’ll only ever deliver one verdict; the one that they’d deliver themselves. They present the case but never give room for the viewers to make independent judgement. Why? Quite simply because an alternative to ‘not guilty’ is almost absolutely inconceivable. Yes the filmmaking is biased, but how could it be otherwise when the evidence makes everything so painstakingly clear? Until any details that have been omitted from the documentary leak out, if they ever do, I know where I stand on the Avery and Dassey case. And if you’ve seen all 10 episodes, then I’m pretty sure I know where you stand as well.
Making a Murderer is available on Netflix. Watch the trailer here.