2019 | rated R | Documentary | directed by Erin Lee Carr | 2 hrs 26 mins |
The two-part HBO documentary with the provocative title I Love You, Now Die attempts to re-examine the case of Conrad Roy – a depressed 18 year old boy who ended up committing suicide in a van in a K-Mart parking lot in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. What cops found on his phone was an elaborate text message campaign from his internet-only girlfriend Michelle Carter encouraging him to end his life, demanding he do so and going into details about how he should do it in the most painless way. Carter is then put on trial for Felony Manslaughter.
The central premise of the film is compelling. It proposes that this is a case, that because of technology and social media and our intimate relationship with it (particularly for teenagers), we have a situation here that the existing laws don’t address. “Can you text someone to death” is the flashy headline, but it goes deeper than that. Roy and Carter never met in person and had a full blown relationship over their phone, one that they themselves related to Romeo & Juliet except a version of Shakespeare’s tragedy where the man takes the poison and his girlfriend pours it out and smirks. The question forces us to cut through the emotion of the case, to say that while Carter very well might be a heartless, monster that did a terrible thing – did she do an illegal thing? Or is the case so president that a new legal standard needs to be set to hold people accountable in a time of rapidly changing technology.
Its’ fascinating stuff and the movie is well made – I imagine all of these HBO documentaries have a strict level of quality control, even Tickled the movie about fetish tickling looked just shy of an Alex Gibney production. But director Erin Lee Carr doesn’t rise to a full exploration of the film’s lofty questions, ultimately focusing on a story that seeks either sympathize with or fully exonerate Michelle Carter. It’s trendy work. This is how legal documentaries are made now. In a post Making a Murderer and Serial world there is an insatiable desire to both tell and consume stories about how the legal system is railroading people. You probably can’t make a legal documentary now that isn’t an emotional plea for the defense. Where I Love You, Now Die tells us to be more pragmatic and less emotional in our view of Roy (showing us his vlog in which he talks to the camera about his struggle with depression), it also wants us to be more emotional and sympathetic to poor Michelle Carter who herself was depressed and on drugs. “Drug-crossed lovers” the star defense expert says, meanwhile Carter shows up to court looking like Cara Delevingne spent the morning in a tanning bed.
Often a great documentary uses it’s subject to springboard into larger social issues, the way last year’s terrific Three Identical Strangers delved into nature vs. nurture, Gibney’s Zero Days talks about American cyber-warfare or HBO’s Beware the Slenderman did delve into social media’s impact on children. The way Now Die reaches for these larger social issues feels more like a smoke bomb tossed down to obscure the facts of the case. Carter isn’t responsible for her actions – everyone else is. Roy for manipulating her (lots of victim blaming here). The drugs she was on. Men who have an unnatural fear of being controlled by women because we once had witch trials in Salem. Society that looks at teenage girls as shallow and only seeking attention. Leah Michelle and Cory Monteth are also at fault as the film goes into great length about how Carter loved Glee and saw herself in the real-life couple’s tragedy.
The film proposes that it’s two parts divide up into the Prosecutor and Defense views, which is laughable because the prosecutor section littered with defense views and the defense section turned over almost entirely to – not a lawyer – but Esquire Magazine writer Jesse Barron who babbles and virtue signals his way through one irrelevant theory after another in favor of Carter. By the end of the film, Carr wants us to think that the people on the street who rail against Carter’s cruelty are the ignorant hillbillies and Barron is the clear-eyed champion of justice. So much is made of Carter’s mental state and what she literally says in her text message (or doesn’t say as one bombshell revelation indicates) and not once does anyone ask if Roy’s depressed state might have made him more easily manipulatable by Carter.
If Brendon Dassey’s mental capacity makes him more suseptable to succumbing to police interrogation and falsely confess (as Making a Murderer proposes) why doesn’t Conrad Roy’s depression make him uniquely susceptible to being manipulated by Carter? Instead this movie skips that and makes free speech arguments, that this case affects anyone saying anything online. More smoke bombs.
The landmark HBO documentary Hot Coffee was a gangbusters case of a movie delving into the story behind the story and coming out with something that wasn’t what it appeared in the media. I Love You, Now Die wants to do that very badly, but it obscures facts of the case to tilt toward the side it’s pre-determined to take. It’s not quite as incompetent as this year’s HBO mammoth Leaving Neverland, but it’s almost as mmaddening By the time we get to the “Leah Michelle made her do it” section, it’s hard to take I Love You, Now Die seriously.