Thought Crimes Resists The Cheap 'Take A Bite Out Of Crime'-Type Commentary This Correspondent Sadly Cannot
Erin Lee Carr explores the issues raised by the Cannibal Cop case without getting bogged down in abstractions.
Your mileage will vary, but I haven't cared much about the so-called Cannibal Cop case on the merits. First of all, Gilberto Valle didn't actually kidnap, torture, violate, or kill and eat anyone in...I was going to say "meatspace," but let's go with "real life" instead. Second, the online conversations allegedly threatening or conspiring to do those things, the ones that sent his then-wife running to the authorities once she found them and initially got Valle convicted, just do not read as very frightening to me. They're so over-the-top with the Lecter posturing, they come off as almost childish.
Third, the debate about where the line is between pure fantasy and intent, and whether we should prosecute the former when we have credible evidence that it's become the latter, is what drives a lot of the coverage of the case. It's a worthwhile debate, but in narrative practice, you end up with a lot of experts in various fields asking where we should put the line, but not answering their own questions, or trailing off after the phrase "case-by-case basis." In other words, it's an important and interesting argument to have but not a great story engine.
Thought Crimes sucked me in, though.
Thought Crimes is the first feature for Erin Lee Carr, who, per her IMDb page, "has been exploring the intersection between the internet and crime since she began working at VICE." She's also the late David Carr's daughter, which I guess doesn't matter, but the film is dedicated to his memory -- and there is a certain Carrishly snarky quality to the cuts (and their repetition) between experts discussing cannibalistic fetishes and Valle making lunch.
Doin' Your Homework
The overall pacing is good and this doesn't affect it all that much, but the references to Minority Report and Orwell feel kind of expected. The beginning of the picture might have benefited from more of an information dump, in fact; I was Googling the timeline and how Valle ended up getting caught.
"Safe spaces" online getting driven underground; Big Brother is everywhere; it's a miscarriage of justice that the jury's decision got reversed. I did not find it especially bleak, but there's bleakness to be had.
It's An Outrage!
See above. Part of me has always had trouble taking the Cannibal Cop case very seriously because of the internet aspect of it -- not that the internet isn't a serious medium per se, but that I don't think most people outside of law enforcement correlate what people say on the internet and what they would actually do out in the 3D world as directly as cops (well, not Valle) and prosecutors seem to. Carr does a subtle job showing the bullshittiness of Valle's rationalizations several years after the fact, and I can't swear Valle won't ever, or would never have, harmed anyone, obvi. But a lot of shit, good and bad, happens on the internet that doesn't "convert." Maybe I've just worked here too long but it's tough for me to get too worked up about the idea that the internet grows this kind of pathology like a mold culture.
Intrusive Filmmaker Agenda
Maybe the jump from that law professor saying nobody wants to let a guy like Valle go "and he goes out and eats somebody" to Valle stirring a very bright red pasta sauce is tacky. Maybe doing that kind of thing a few times is tacky. I snickered, because I'm tacky for sure, and compared to the tasteless tabloid punnery surrounding the case for months on end, those edits are positively Victorian. (Even Valle himself can't entirely avoid it, noting after he posts his dating profile that he's "craving some companionship." Phrasing, fella!)
Carr doesn't make herself too much felt, aside from questions from off-camera, and I would have scored this even lower, but a few visual choices really don't work for me, starting with the "stock" -- Thought Crimes is frequently ugly to look at visually. The talking-head interviews don't suffer as much from that weird flatness, but overall it looks kind of cheap, which is too bad. Carr is clever about "filming" the IM conversations, cutting in some voice-overs so it's not just a tedious animation, but the industry generally needs to work on not straining to give, say, texting recreations visual pizzazz. It's a true-crime docu; there's going to be some reading. The audience will get over it. Relax. I am not a crackpot.
Carr couldn't get everyone involved to talk to her, but I believe she got an exclusive interview with Valle while he was still in jail, and he seems cooperative and open with her, as do his parents.
Slate's Daniel Engber collaborated with Carr on tracking down Valle's contact info, and appears in the film, along with Bob Kolker, whose solid take on CC I would have linked to even if he hadn't showed up onscreen. The experts, including Alan Dershowitz, boil down the ethical and psychological complexities in the legal situation without sounding glib; Carr lets them do some visible thinking or struggling with answers.
Thought Crimes covers the subject pretty well, but I'll look forward to Carr's next project, and I recommend Kolker's Lost Girls.