TV-MA, mainly because True Crime can get pretty darned grizzly. This is one of those really messed up True Crime docs. While the movie doesn't necessarily get visually graphic, there are a few really haunting photos in the movie. For instance, you may not see actual bodies, but you will see the garbage bags that contained parts of their bodies. That's pretty upsetting. There's also an element to these crimes that is sexual, so that needs to be taken into account when watching this. I also can't help but state that True Crime really rides the line between exploitative and supportive of the victims. You read into that however you want, but it should be considered before watching something like this.
DIRECTOR: Michael Harte
Okay, I swear it was an accident this time. I don't mean to make this the third documentary I'm watching in a row. I'm not on a documentary kick. I honestly thought that this was a series that my wife and I were starting. It was only once the movie hit the 50 minute mark and I felt that there was an act structure behind the formatting did I realize that this was simply a shorter film and that I would have to write about it. The website hasn't changed to "Literally Anything: Documentaries" or "Literally Just Documentaries" (I'm workshopping for no reason right now). It's just that my little algorithm coupled with Netflix's release schedule led me to watch a bunch of documentaries. For that, I'm sorry, I guess?
It's really hard to treat Memories of a Murderer like a film. I'm going to talk about Dennis Nilsen probably a whole bunch in this blog. That's the plan. But it also wasn't my gut reaction to the whole thing. The biggest takeaway, besides the fact that I'm clearly desensitized enough to get snagged on formula versus body count, is that the film almost isn't a movie, at least in terms of narrative. The story of Dennis Nilsen is really just bizarre. Traditionally, in True Crime storytelling, it is all about the chase. There is someone out there who is committing heinous acts. The movie shifts the perspective away from the killers to a protagonist of some kind. With Don't F*ck with Cats, it was the amateur sleuths of the Internet. With Serial, it was the investigative team who tried to prove that Anan Sayed possibly couldn't have done it. Okay, that's all good. But with Dennis Nilsen, people didn't know that they were looking for a serial killer. The first few minutes of the story was the arrest of Dennis Nilsen after the police came to investigate a clog to his sewer drain and a weird smell. In the process of performing a fairly low stakes service, the police officer thinks that he finds a single dead body and praises the Lord for his good fortune to find a murderer early on. But when Nilsen instantly confesses to 15-16 murders, the movie doesn't know what to do with itself.
There's no real conflict. If anything --and this is probably totally fine from a documentarian's perspective --it is an admonition of humanity. It criticizes society on ignoring the downcast and the flawed, as it should. Now, that's a theme. It's an important theme and the moral of the story is quintessential to absorbing the film. But what it is not is a plot. There is no plot. Sure, it's a documentary. It might not need a plot. But the movie really keeps going back to the same well: how could we have lost so many people and not known that we have lost them? There are elements on what makes a monster like Dennis Nilsen. There's also the concept that Dennis Nilsen is not just a murderer, but also a liar. But these are all set decoration for the grander story of how we let this happen. There is no doubt that Dennis Nilsen is the real bad guy. But he just makes the movie all that more depressing because Nilsen probably wasn't stressed out regarding being a murderer a day in his life. No one was even looking for him and he was able to kill 16 people. That's nuts. (I think the movie settled on 15.)
But when the movie isn't about locking into a throughline of investigation into Nilsen, I find it interesting to look at him through the lens of expectations. I had never heard of this guy before watching the documentary. That seems to be the common thread of things that my wife and I say while watching these True Crime things: "How have we not heard about this?" The only time that I beat someone to the punch was GSK, but that's because I was following Patton Oswalt's feed about his late wife's investigation. But the movie stresses that Nilsen didn't look the part. I might disagree with that. I think he looked plenty creepy. Also, isn't that kind of the point? He should be normal looking. I was more floored by how good looking the Don't F*ck with Cats guy was because he stood out for a completely different reason than anyone else. But Dennis Nilsen defied expectations almost because he came across as a Hollywood villain. The movie starts off with him commenting on a rumor that wasn't true. Someone stated that Nilsen had a Silence of the Lambs poster on the wall of his cell because he was so inspired by Hannibal Lecter. That probably wasn't true...but it also made a lot of sense.
There's something about Nilsen that is perhaps more haunting than I care to admit. Nilsen really does feel like Hannibal Lecter. There's something about the cadence of his voice. It's the lilts and the intellect that makes him truly upsetting. I will admit to being a fan of Thomas Harris's most famous creation when I was younger. But Hannibal Lecter was always such a fantasy villain. He was over-the-top and dramatic about everything he did. He reveled in his own persona, trying to upset those around him with his callous treatment of the human person. Nilsen has that. He talks to a tape recorder like he's trying to show that he has contempt for it. He sounds wise and well-spoken and that's the part that's uncomfortable. We're used to the Ed Geins of the world, barely literate and in need of mental health services. But when Nilsen was up for his hearing and pled Not Guilty by Means of Insanity, there's this very obvious moment where I could say, "This guy is wholly aware of what he was doing." That's a cocky thing for a guy like me to say. After all, it seems like his story kept changing in terms of premeditation. But Nilsen comes across as an absolute monster.
But this is where I have to point the critique to myself. Since I started dating the woman who would become my wife, because she introduced me to it, I enjoy a good True Crime story. Part of me justifies it as a sign that justice prevails. Sometimes it is a call for legal reform. But I don't know what to take out of Memories of a Murderer besides voyeurism. Because this isn't a story about crack police work, it becomes a story about exploiting victims. It is about bringing the weakness of these people to light. Because for as much as this movie is founded on the tapes that Dennis Nilsen made in prison, the movie really focuses on those people who were hurt due to Nilsen's actions or those who were afraid to confront him. There's something uncomfortable about this because it just becomes like watching a trainwreck from the comfort of my couch. These are real people and I'm watching them cry over the loss of their loved ones. Part of me tries justifying it, saying I'm giving the voiceless a voice. But I also know that they are there to complete the picture of who Dennis Nilsen was. That's a bit disheartening to me. I want to save these people. I want to change things. But the film never really offers me concrete ways of changing the way we view the outsider.
Instead. Memories of a Murderer becomes this weird trivia point that I now know about. I don't feel like I grew as a person watching this. I just now know his MO for seducing mostly gay homeless men. I also know that he didn't exclusively prey on this demographic, but these were still people who were vulnerable up until this moment. I guess I could glean that the press is ravenous to eat up stories like this, but that message really takes a back seat. It's an interesting film that also makes me feel icky in the long run.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.