“Riveting” is an overused, even lazy, term in criticism, but it’s hard to think of one that better applies to “Making a Murderer,” Netflix’s stunning 10-part documentary, which takes its place alongside “The Jinx” and the podcast “Serial” in invigorating the true-crime form. Like a panacea to the spread of reality-TV reenactments, the series serves as a remarkable endorsement of traditional documentary techniques, piecing together courtroom video, depositions, news footage and interviews into a fascinating, narration-free narrative that plays like a thriller. Amid a December dump of streaming originals, Netflix has saved one of its best for last.
Writer-directors Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi have invested a decade in chronicling the case of the wrongly accused Steven Avery, and the hard work shows, in a story that feels as if it’s equal parts “Rectify” and “Fargo.” A Wisconsin man with a history of petty crimes, Avery spent 18 years in prison for a sexual assault, before being exonerated by DNA evidence in 2003.
As the filmmakers painstakingly document, Avery’s conviction seemed to require willful misconduct on the part of police and local prosecutors, ignoring alibi witnesses and evidence pointing to another suspect. With the case singled out as a miscarriage of justice, Avery appeared destined to cash in via a civil suit — at least some compensation for an ordeal that, among other things, cost him his wife and children.
Yet as that moment drew near, Avery suddenly found himself charged with another heinous crime, inviting speculation about whether local authorities were seeking to undermine his claims. Adding a discomfiting twist, much of the testimony hinged on a 16-year-old cousin of the accused who possessed limited mental faculties and was extensively questioned (and yes, there’s tape of all this) without a parent or attorney present.
Given how tedious actual legal proceedings can appear to an audience weaned on the whiz-bang-pow cross-examinations of “Law & Order,” Demos and Ricciardi have done an astonishing job of cutting to the heart of the story with clips from depositions and courtrooms. As constructed, the series also plays like an indictment of the media, from the blather of local news anchors to a “Dateline” producer shown discussing how enticing salacious true-crime tales are, both to her show and its competitors.
Those who watch “Making a Murderer” (a title, itself, with a potential dual meaning) without any familiarity with the story might find themselves wondering whether this account — drawn heavily from interviews with Avery’s lawyers — is skewed to create a particular impression. But as meticulously crafted, the filmmakers establish a chilling portrait of potential abuse of power, and how a lone individual, especially one as outwardly unsympathetic as Avery, whose English-garbling speech patterns are practically hypnotic, could be victimized by a corrupt system.
Frankly, the success of “Serial” and subsequently “The Jinx” caused a certain amount of trepidation, since one could almost sense the crazed chase among producers to find the next Robert Durst — not the sort of serendipity, in TV terms, that happens every day. Further, given that networks like Investigation Discovery tend to boil a lot of crime yarns down to 30 minutes, it’s almost inconceivable to think of audiences possessing the patience to devote 10 hours to one in this spare documentary form.
Still, any skepticism will evaporate long before completing the first few episodes, and viewers will be hard-pressed not to come away with a gnawing sense that a terrible miscarriage of justice occurred, over a span of decades. Because once reeled into the twisted web that is “Making a Murderer,” the temptation will be to binge on it until the bitter end.