Unless you’ve been living under a rock in 2016 – which given the weather, Jeremy Hunt and untimely deaths of rock/movie legends would be understandable – you’ll have heard of Making A Murderer. This 10-part, true crime documentary has millions across the globe glued to Netflix (for the rock dwellers, spoilers abound, so proceed at your peril). Piece-by-carefully-selected-piece it reveals the story of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man exculpated after 18 years of wrongful imprisonment in 2003 but charged with the murder of photographer Teresa Halbach in 2005. Avery’s acquittal and subsequent re-arrest made news in America at the time, but nothing compared to the impact of Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi’s meticulously constructed analysis of him, his family and the trial that shaped his life. Celebrities from Kim Kardashian to Alec Baldwin to Britain’s own Joey Barton have expressed their addiction, while Barack Obama has responded to a whitehouse.gov petition demanding the release of Avery and Avery’s also convicted nephew Brandon (Obama cannot intervene in what is a state, not a federal matter). Netflix has never hosted anything quite like this; but that is not to say it comes from nowhere. Here is a look at the top 5 influences on Making A Murderer; if you’re yet to try it, be warned – it will have you gripped to the close.
5. 12 Angry Men – dir. Sidney Lumet
Adapted from Reginald Rose’s teleplay, 12 Angry Men is not only a blueprint for representing the process of law on screen but also depicts the goodness and the weakness that exists in humanity. At the beginning of their deliberations, eleven of the twelve jury members are prepared to submit a guilty verdict upon a young man accused of murder with no consideration. Thanks to the efforts of Henry Fonda’s Juror 8, doubt grows in the minds of some jury members, and through discussion they discover the case is not as simple as it seems. For all the snappy title and dingy details, this is the compelling issue at the heart of Making A Murderer; that in law, guilt must be proven, and until it is everyone deserves to be considered innocent.
4. In Cold Blood – written by Truman Capote
Whether or not it is the first non-fiction novel is by-the-by; Truman Capote’s 1966 book is one of the all-time great works of literature. By considering the brutal murders in Holcomb, Kansas from all sides, and by fully representing each of the people involved in the case, Capote eschews sensationalism and gives a masterfully real account of the coming together of several lives in tragedy. Without ever excusing perpatrators Richard Hickock or Perry Smith, he brings readers to an understanding of how their most callous crimes occurred, and the effect they had on the community in Holcomb. The makers of Making A Murderer have a similarly wide lens; Steven Avery’s incarceration is not the story of one person, but of the many people affected whenever justice is evaluated.
3. The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came To Eden – dir. Daniel Geller & Dayna Goldfine
Of lesser renown but no less quality, this 2013 documentary tells its story in such an artful, chilling way that you feel it must have been made for a movie. In the 1930s a Berlin doctor and his mistress tried to escape the rise of fascism and the constant suspicion that plagued much of Europe by becoming the only inhabitants of Floreana, a distant, idyllic island in the Galapagos. The secluded paradise they found was soon lost as another couple moved to their reclusive rock, and were followed by a charismatic but colonising Baronness and her lovers. Cracks in the relationships between the dwellers grew, leading to violence, missing people and even…murder? The links between TGA and Making A Murderer are as much stylistic and structural as through content; the combination of carefully selected excerpts from the diaries of the protagonists and suggestive archival footage and photographs places the viewer in the dual role of protagonist and detective. We are living the story as we learn about it; but we are also trying to find out what isn’t being told. With delightfully tense narration from Cate Blanchett, Sebastian Koch and many more, this is a perfect post-MaM pick to continue your sleuthing.
2. Orange Is The New Black – created by Jenji Kohan
Yes it’s a comedy on one level, and the focus is prison, not trials, but the all-conquering OITNB is also about the immense injustices rife in the American legal system. A system that targets the under-privileged – people of colour, people with disabilities both physical and mental, people who don’t fit the heteronormative ideal – while simultaneously allowing other types of crime to flourish, from Fig’s fiddling the books to the horrific abuses of power committed by Pornstache. Piper is in a position of comfort relative to some of her fellow inmates; what she sees is a world where ‘truth’ and ‘justice’ are simply whichever version of events suits those in power. One imagines Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey would sympathise. OITNB also shows what legal dramas can forget; that prisoners have humanity, both good and bad.
1. Into The Abyss: A Tale Of Death, A Tale Of Life – dir. Werner Herzog
As the great film arbiter of the human condition, it is no wonder that Werner Herzog made a prison documentary so deep you can see your own soul in it. Evaluating a triple homicide in Texas and the two men convicted of it (one of whom is on death row during the film), Herzog considers violence, guilt, law enforcement, justice, compassion and time in a extraordinary work that will leave you shaking at its power. Of the five sources listed here, Into The Abyss is the closest to Making A Murderer; without ruling on the guilt or otherwise of its protagonists, it opens up the flaws in the justice system, reveals the humanity of those who have committed terrible deeds and shows that nothing, especially murder, is as simple as it might seem.
So there are five works that contribute to the DNA of Making A Murderer; can you think of any more? What are your feelings on the show – is it a worthwhile expose of a flawed system? Does it sensationalise a sensitive subject, or omit key information? Contribute your thoughts below and at @dreamdepends!