Good grief, you do not want to stand trial in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, any time soon. For Steven Avery, unfortunately, this is becoming something of a bad habit. His murder trial is the subject of Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos’s 10-hour Netflix documentary series, Making a Murderer.
If you pride yourself on keeping relatively abreast of the ‘popular’ side of culture, or live within shouting distance of my living room, it will have been hard to escape hearing about Making a Murderer. The Avery family, appear as an introverted, self-sufficient clan, existing in contented isolation on the periphery of Manitowoc County. As a result of staggering official misconduct and subterfuge, Steven serves 18 years for a gruesome assault he didn’t commit. Freed on the back of exculpatory DNA evidence, he intends to sue the sheriff’s department for $36 million, when the charred remains of a missing photographer are discovered on his lawn. That’s episode one of ten, and what turns out to a gentle introduction to the misfortunes of Steven Avery.
The illegitimacy of Avery’s first conviction only pales by comparison to the pantomime villainy offered up by the prosecution in his ensuing murder trial. Each episode offers a fresh feast of injustices. As the closing titles role, one sits so immobile with incredulity that there is really little choice but to allow the next to automatically play and the banquet of aspersion and lies to continue. In the midst of tragedy, Avery is left as strangely voiceless figure. At once gormless and striking stoical, he appears as the Kafkaesque victim of his own life story, disorientated and terrified, caught in the impersonal grip of a faceless and monolithic authority that he is powerless to resist or fully comprehend.
The film exercises the same power of suggestion, the same unflamboyant persuasiveness as the best defense attorney. Never far from view, however, is a much richer human drama than that of the theatre of court. The film’s beauty is borne of its complexity, the interweaving of numerous human voices. Much of this derives from the filmmakers’ painstaking compilation of recorded prison phone calls, official police interview and testimony. In presenting us Avery’s calls to his family down a crackling prison line, we effortlessly acquire that most elusive of documentary’s treasures: that of uninhibited and unperformed human interaction.
It is the isolation in this vision of small-town America, its disconnectedness from the outside, the understated emotion of its characters, its very parochial condition, that allows it to play host to the grand sweep of human tragedy. The documentary has the wealth in cast of a Victorian novel, a pool of characters whose all too human prejudice and hubris could not be more convincingly rendered in the most artful fictive drama. Combatting the state’s vast illogical strength are Avery’s sisyphean, battle-wearied attorneys, who in a remarkable turn restore to the enterprise of legal defense a kind of embattled nobility reminiscent of Atticus Finch.
If like me, you fundamentally lack any spirit of perseverance, then don’t worry, there seems no threat of a second series. There is rather, to compensate, something enduring in this portrait of a town and a family. Certain images of domesticity linger, overcoming the cheap hysteria of murder and accusation. The Manitowoc Water Tower reaches into the dull sky; the Avery salvage-yard remains, its uneven lines of wrecked cars emerging like headstones from the dirt and unmoved snow.