In an interview with The Daily Beast, Moira Demos — one half of the filmmaking team alongside Laura Ricciardi — said that the team had learnt one key lesson from their work: “Just because you have questions doesn’t mean that you’re going to get an answer. If you’re so committed to finding the truth and finding the answer, it’s very hard to be comfortable with ambiguity and you’ll often settle, just for some finality.” Netflix’s latest revelation and docuseries, Making a Murderer, has an uncomfortable relationship with the truth, but its influence and entertainment value is making tsunami-sized waves across America and the Netflix community nevertheless. The excitement and vast range of emotions the show elicits from its ten episodes cannot be denied, but as a vehicle to undermine the official legislative truth of the state of Wisconsin, Making a Murderer resolutely fails by, instead, telling a ‘truth’ all of its own.
Making A Murderer is a cheaply shot documentary series following the life of Steven Avery, beginning from his conviction of a brutal rape in 1985, a conviction that later proved false after advancements in DNA technology. After 18 years behind bars, Avery finds himself again accused of a crime, now the homicide of Teresa Halbach. What follows is a mammoth investigation and trial that engulfs the entire city of Manitowoc, Wisconsin; it’s so full of drama that you often have to remind yourself that these events really happened, and continue to happen in the barrage of news stories and amateur investigations started by Netflix viewers. After you’ve finished bingeing on your last episode, even a cursory internet search will show that this is a story that has only really just begun.
Making a Murderer excels in dramatising the events of Avery’s plight. From shock, heartbreak and frustration to downright anger, this is a film will make you feel all the emotions. Making a Murderer is thrilling precisely because it’s unpredictable: you’ll build your own theories about the truth based on the evidence you’re given, then the plot will thicken far more than you’ll possibly be able to have envisaged at the show’s outset. The film is also scored masterfully by Gustavo Santaolalla, and his music will be instantly recognisable to any veterans of the video game The Last of Us. Santaolla’s thoughtful string guitar is an effective cathartic release in between the stressful intensity of the trial and investigation scenes that form the bulk of the film.
So, the film works as a drama or work of entertainment and, in this sense, is worthy of a five star rating. But, you may have noticed that that isn’t the rating I have awarded Making a Murderer. It’s a film that obsessed with the truth: the discovering of true events, the covering up of truth and the production of new truths are all components with which the film is heavily engaged. But, in Demos and Ricciardi’s best efforts to undermine the supposed truths used by the state against Avery, we have a film that is substantially biased.
Making a Murderer is thrilling precisely because it’s unpredictable
Worse still, we only see the direct input of the two filmmakers through text entries that occasionally link other scenes together. The voices and the opinions expressed in the film come from family members, and the media, as well as the defence and prosecution teams. The pair assume the position of the witness, always suggesting that their film is the simple, unmediated truth, while all the while they lurk in the background pulling the strings. Their silence is designed to mask this reality; any conclusions you draw from the events shown are your own. That is, until you stop and think for a moment why the docuseries is named as it is.
New evidence and the emergence of new testimonies appear constantly throughout the series, but, after the show is finished, you’ll only have one conclusion in mind. For those that have finished, or are some of the way through the series (no spoilers), you might be familiar with a certain unsavoury interview conducted by prosecution investigators Wiegert and Fassbender that involves Avery’s nephew Brendan Dassey. Both investigators are relentless in their search for the truth, so much so that they arguably do not uncover it and, in the end, create their own. Now, how different is the viewer from these men when conclusions are made based on contentious evidence and then force that evidence to become truth borne out of a desire for finality?
Ken Kratz, the district attorney heading up the prosecution, and ‘villain’ of the documentary, told People: “You don’t want to muddy up a perfectly good conspiracy movie with what actually happened” as he claims that the film missed out crucial evidence that would implicate Avery in the eyes of the viewer. The filmmakers allege that Kratz declined to be involved with the film, yet Kratz argues that he was only approached after the project was largely completed. Who are we supposed to believe? Even in the aftermath of Making a Murderer, such a small factor is complex and with two sides, yet, in the film, we’re only really privy to one.
The film, really, is constructed in a way to shock, anger and exacerbate the viewer’s emotional response
Both Demos and Ricciardi argue, also in The Daily Beast, “As filmmakers and as storytellers, it’s in our interest to show conflict and to show the strengths of the state’s case, then show the defense’s arguments against it. That was how we structured things.” If this is the case, and we remember the significant insight the viewer is allowed into the defence team of Dean Strang and Jerry Buting and their emotional investment in the case, then the pair have failed, and spectacularly so.
We must always keep in mind the constructed nature of Making a Murderer and evaluate the way it makes us feel as viewers. The film, really, is constructed in a way to shock, anger and exacerbate the viewer’s emotional response. And, it does this with aplomb, better, in fact, than most films I’ve ever seen: I can guarantee that once you set off on your journey to Manitowoc, it’ll likely be over within a few days. However, the film also desires an emotional reaction from you, that implicates itself in a biased way in the debacle of Avery’s case. The film teaches us to challenge any and all evidence we’re given: we must resist the urge to settle for finality at the expense of the real truth. We must consider the motivations behind all testimonies and theories put forward by Kratz’s prosecution team. But, this skepticism must also always extend to Moira Demos, Laura Ricciardi and Making a Murderer, itself.