There was once a man – a hillbilly kinda guy – who lived and worked on a used car lot with the rest of his family. Stuff went down: trailers, trash, poverty, alcoholism, delinquency, incest, abuse, gross food…a lot of general weirdness but not rape and, well, maybe not even murder – neither of which is any compensating factor because the man was sent to prison anyway.
If you haven’t yet heard the tale of Steven Avery, poor you must be living in a vortex of confusion as everybody else in cyberspace plays super sleuth in an effort to find out what the freaking hell happened. The story of Steven, which, sadly, is no tale at all, hit screens in an epic way when Netflix rolled out a ten-part documentary series (on December 8, 2015) following the life of a man wrongfully convicted of rape back in 1985 – when Coke changed its formula, Route 66 was decommissioned and Like a Virgin took over the radio. Making A Murderer offers a brief account of Avery’s 18-year imprisonment at the hands of a dishonourable sentence – meted out by what appears to be a careless investigation at the hands of a biased sheriff’s department with a malicious agenda. The series then jumps 18 years, when improved forensic techniques clear Avery of all charges and he is released – a free and innocent man.
Avery decides to sue Mantiwoc County, Wisconsin, for damages – in the millions – and looks set to win until a young woman, Teresa Halbach, is murdered and Steven Avery is arrested and charged with the crime; dashing all hopes of retribution. It’s all very suspicious. Viewers are led through an investigative labyrinth that includes a load of trial and interview footage, which might sound duller than a Justin Bieber concert but, in fact, the viewing is scintillating. Filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos have expertly edited a total of 700 hours of video footage into a ten hours worth of brilliantly told story. The show lures viewers in with the hook of injustice and in the process, turns mild-mannered after-dinner recreational television into a cultish obsession before you know you’re obsessed.
The plot is intricate, the saga immense and viewing is by no means easy – it’s frustrating, infuriating, gut-wrenching, emotionally draining (all of that and more) but undeniably entertaining. Society’s taste for sensationalism is pinpointed in the documentary as the media frenzy around Avery’s murder trial calls into question the objectivity of a jury exposed to an onslaught of opinion before the trial has even started. We sit on a comfy couch (a pedestal), with coffee and a biscuit, and watch the trauma of a man’s life unfold; we comment, criticise and extrapolate opinion from the safety of a world far-removed but in so doing, we involve ourselves in the tragedy of Steven Avery. By including its audience, the show also implicates its audience – imbuing us with culpability and responsibility. We may not have written the article or reported the news but we bought the story. Murder is hot. We’re curious about it. Interested. Intrigued. Especially when it’s bloody.
But when the narrative reads like a Shakespeare play… the violence; the villainy;the heroism; the tragedy…resistance is futile! Making a Murderer was designed to grab our attention and hold onto it like a rabid dog. Talking cue from the good bard, we are presented with a story where nothing is as it seems. Making a Murderer smashes stereotype in its smug little face; audience sympathy is awarded to the hillbilly criminal and his low I.Q nephew Brendan Dassey, who is also roped into the murder charge after being intimidated into a series of contradictory, nonsensical testimonies linked to what happened on the day of the crime. Defence attorneys Jerry Buting and Dean Strang become the heroes of the story and abhorrent prosecuting attorney Ken Kratz is the villain – an identity propounded by the post-trial revelation of a sexting scandal. Kratz also admitted the abuse of prescription drugs and that he was being treated for sex addiction. Who’s the hillbilly now?
The telling of Avery’s story, apart from directing the audience to a serious point about the American justice system and its seeming failure, is a clear reminder that ‘a suit’ is not always an indication of morality. Appearances can be deceiving; it’s a simple point but not something that we buy into on a regular basis. Casting out eyes beneath the surface in a quest for truth, depth and meaning is contrary to human nature, which makes social context one of the easiest ways to dehumanise another person. We expect guys like Avery to rape and murder – because their mom’s their aunt and they work in used car lots…OK – so perhaps there are stats that show links between crime and poverty or crime and lesser intelligence but ‘bad’ does not always have big eyes, ears and teeth; the wolf sometimes dresses like granny and sends the wrong person to prison.
Was Steven Avery made into a murderer by a corrupt justice system looking to cover its ass or by 18 years spent in prison, as an innocent man (that’s gotta do things things to a man’s mind)? Innocent or guilty, what seems certain is that the evidence presented at Avery’s trial was not enough to warrant a conviction. And the temperamental testimony that forms the crux of the Brendan Dassey conviction is flimsy in equal measure. In fact, Dassey is arguably the most catastrophic figure in the whole tragic story. Watching investigators use mental acrobatics to pummel the guy into a confession is torturous. The manipulation. The bullying. The ensuing confusion. There is no way of actually knowing what’s right, what’s real, and what’s not. Making a Murderer is a stark reminder of just how much is wrong with the world – not only because justice is a joke (and not just in Wisconsin) but because our perceptions are often so damn wrong, and somewhere along the way this stopped being a big deal.