As a culture, we are on a huge true crime kick right now. The one-two punch of Serial and Making a Murderer basically guaranteed that a slew of gritty investigations into real life crimes would be beamed into our eyes and ears for the foreseeable future. The latest docuseries (at the time of this writing) to fill our insatiable appetite for all things criminal is Netflix’s I Am A Killer. What sets Killer apart from its peers is a de-emphasis on narrativizing the crimes in question by dolling out crucial details and investigative discoveries piecemeal. Instead, as the title implies, I Am A Killer is about the human element in these stories. The predominant mode of storytelling is the talking head, often placed matter-of-factly in the center of the screen. This makes the series a breath of fresh air, in my opinion. This is a series that boldly asks you not to indulge but instead of empathize with the people involved. As entertaining as deep dive investigations can be, they can’t help but feel a bit too lurid and a bit too indulgent in the face of the human stories being presented here.
In the first two episodes, we are introduced to James Robertson and Kenneth Foster. These men provide a study in contrasts, as Robertson laughs about the crime that put him on death row while Foster makes honest attempts at redemption for an act performed roughly twenty years ago. The filmmakers are smart to use there ten episodes to put a magnifying glass on ten different people. Mainly, the breathing room afforded by each case getting its own hour allows the filmmakers to really get in deep and give everything the attention it deserves. More than that, it is a bold statement that declares a certain worthiness on the part of the subjects. James Robertson may be a remorseless killer but he’s still human, as is Kenneth Foster. There is a question asked by multiple characters in Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy: “Even though I am no better than a monster, don’t I, too, have the right to live”. I am only so far into the series now but I Am A Killer almost certainly thinks the answer is “yes” and it extends that answer to whether or not these men deserve to have their stories told.
Robertson is definitely the most unsavory of the two people featured thus far. His pale skin, heavily bagged eyes and missing teeth can’t help but evoke a lot of our preconceptions about what a criminal looks like (he would look right at home getting punched in the face by Batman). His largely regretless attitude towards his crimes compounds the initial uneasiness he provokes, as we learn that he killed his cellmate simply to avoid close management (a term for solitary confinement that seeks to gain some distance from all of the negative press solitary has gotten over the years). What the first episode reveals over the course of its run time is that Robertson’s ragged look is not that of a man who is inherently dangerous but instead the look of a man who hasn’t seen the sun in decades. See, Robertson has been in and out of the prison system since he was 12 and a lot of that time – he was tried as an adult for the first time when he was 17 – has been spend in solitude. This story ends up being a great look at how the prison system and criminality have a symbiotic relationship with each other, instead of the diametric opposition one might expect. In addition, through a cousin of Robertson’s, we see how empathy succeeds were “tough on crime” punishments often fail.
On the other hand, Foster’s story zeroes in on the themes of responsibility for one’s self and one’s actions in the face of imposing external factors while also examining the role of compassion and forgiveness in the lives of victims. Foster was driving a car when his friend chose to get out and shoot somebody. Due to Texas’ parties law, he too was held responsible for the shooting. The reason for the law given by a Texas DA in the episode is that people could simply manipulate others into committing crimes and evade prosecution because they didn’t do the act itself. If that is the intention of the law, then it is not obvious Foster’s death sentence is in the spirit of it. There are multiple perspectives on the event in question, including a remarkable one from Foster himself that the filmmakers do save until the very end of the episode, but proximity and even tacit acceptance doesn’t amount to manipulation and equal culpability as far as I can tell. Still, Foster’s role in the crime undeniably triggers our retributivist impulses and things get more confusing and challenging as we meet both the families of both the victim and the perpetrator. As with the first episode, the filmmakers also explore Foster’s own history and how it played a role in the man he is today.
I am looking forward to watching more of this thoughtful and empathetic series. I like the deft, matter of fact way that the different perspectives in the show are presented and balanced. On top of that, I like that true crime trends are being challenged by remembering that these events are first and foremost events in people’s lives, not exciting narratives designed for our consumption. I know that documentary is narrative and that these stories are, first and foremost, stories. However, they are stories with their heart and mind in the right place and I, so far, am grateful for having heard them.