Making a Murderer full movie review - Look into the void, and the void will look back into you
Making a Murderer shows what democracy looks like where you might naively expect it to be most healthy, if you have an idealized and outdated view of Wisconsin and Midwestern country life.
It is not a balanced documentary series, but even if it was, Manitowoc would still appear as an absurd, idiocratic dystopia full of clowns, fools, and villains -- all of them narcissists -- clinging to different pieces of the wreckage of the old class system that was never about being nice at all, just Midwestern nice. What may have been a fig leaf of bourgeois respectability once upon a time today is everyone's slummy attempt to parlay a bit of attention into celebrity gold.
The unintended genius of the filmmaker is to proffer the carrot of our national voyeurism to these hungry naught selves and dangle it back at the rest of us. We too have sconnie bohunk Neanderthals and church lady scolds within us, literally or figuratively. MaM certainly exploits and reveals the ways we all try to identify truth with moral rectitude through simple moral types so we can separate the sheep from the goats. It is a terribly innocent notion of innocence, which Graham Greene aptly described not as a virtue but as a blind leper who has lost his bell and his way.
Right away we learn Manitowoc's zeal to put away a goat in the past for a rape he did not commit is the festering sore on their collective pride. The authorities and solid citizens want to keep their lusty monsters (and sexuality in general), their pure and innocent victims, and their trusted guardians in the separate, unequal categories of an imagined community. It's an image that the polite society of every small town or city has of itself. It does not exist in fact and the best way to demonstrate it is a lie is to prop it up with prejudice and power. This is kind of "faking it to make it" really means faking out yourself so you can live with the smell is not an unusual municipal survival strategy in the Rustbelt that brought Scott Walker to power.
The 10-episode first season of MaM is extremely limited in scope and depth, since it focuses almost entirely on the defense of a rather polished image of the Avery elders as Ma and Pa Kettle. You see the police and prosecutors railroading these poor, seemingly ignorant people. It's a conspiracy to convict them -- of course, that is what policing is -- but the camera does not offer a breakthrough to "the truth" behind the swirl of contrary stories and images. It would have been a lot better as reportage and art if the cameras had looked into the community and families more, where they would have found a full spectrum of hometown monsters. The filmmakers never dug into the carnival of violent perverts in the literally inbred Avery clan. Fans and amateur sleuths have gone and done the digging themselves online.
The last episode briefly tacks on former DA Ken Kratz's downfall as a narcissist who now claims sex and drug addictions made him a victim too. After the show came out, Kratz became the villain to viewers. His career had already imploded due to his predatory behavior and sex-ting of female domestic abuse victims he took as clients. Kratz today is desperate for the public to know he is on the other side of recovery now. He is not just a creep. He is also writing a book and writing strange harassing letters to Avery to bait him into confessing his crimes for Kratz's book. No doubt they would write a book too, if he could.
The defendants and defense attorneys receive only friendly camera attention throughout the series, but it's not pure whitewash. The defense attorney who is the most credible and seemingly sincere moral actor in the show, Dean Strang, holds onto the possibility that Avery is guilty. Ultimately he hopes he has been defending a murderer rather than believe the county justice system is corrupt. He's holding together what seems like two radically different possibilities in mind, but in fact both may be true. That is the conclusion no one wants to imagine, but given the time to reflect it seem to have become the dominant public response.
In the end it's disturbingly easy to imagine a plausible master narrative that resolves the case by implicating nearly everyone involved as stupid, crazy, *and* evil -- especially at least some of the extended Avery family. It's a fascinating, dreaded combination of motives that defines the psychopath who walks among us. They're bound to deceive anyone who is trusting rather than paranoid, anyone willing to check self-interest against a generous concern for others, even strangers. The victim's roommate and her brother, the Avery family, the sheriff's department and prosecuting attorneys -- they all come out looking not just suspicious but deceitful and possibly criminal. Once viewers realize that, there's a bigger problem that explains the popular obsession with the show: this is not just something that happens in Podunk Wisconsin where everyone is white. Our social contract is well and truly broken.
Making active legal cases like these into popular entertainment spectacles is a new level of voyeuristic realism. It dissolves our Made in the USA social imaginary by showing the factory floor and the company town where our normative unreality is crudely manufactured. It's a docudrama for idiocracy, a mockumentary for the American soul for anyone who still wants to believe.