Where do you draw the line between fantasy and reality? When does thinking about committing a crime become a crime? Can we be convicted just because our Google searches were for suspicious or potentially dangerous things? These are just some of the questions posed by the chilling documentary titled Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop that will be screening as part of the Sydney Underground Film Festival.
This first time feature from director Erin Lee Carr delves into the ongoing case of Gilberto Valle, who the tabloid media dubbed ‘The Cannibal Cop’. Valle was a family man, married with a child, and working as a New York police officer and for all intents and purposes seemed like your average working joe. His wife, growing suspicious of his erratic late night behaviour ends up discovering that he’s been engaging in explicit online conversations about raping, torturing and murdering women in a fetishist chat room.
Valle was never convicted for cannibalism, or murder for that matter, however he was charged for conspiracy to kidnap and also of unlawfully accessing police data and convicted. Resulting in a 21 month spell in a federal prison before a judge overturned the initial conviction citing insufficient evidence of an actual crime. At the moment the prosecution has appealed this overturning and is still under further investigation. And this is where the complexity of his case begins to get murky.
The crux of this case hinges on the psychology of it all, Valle never killed anybody but the question is did he intend to do it? Valle’s defence and his psychologists claim no, that it was all just fantasy. That the instant messaging conversations were merely collective storytelling and liken it to horror fiction akin to the writings of Stephen King. But the detail with which he describes what he’d “like” to do, what he was planning on doing. That his Google search history included “how to make your own chloroform” and “the best type of rope to tie someone up with”. And the fact that he abused his power and privilege as a police officer to research into his (possible) intended victims makes you want to side with the prosecution. One of the attorneys even notes that it’s most likely the jury were erring on the “what if” side of caution, that they didn’t want to exonerate him in case he did go on to commit a crime.
What is most unsettling is how Carr manages to shift the documentary back and forth between view points and the debate. Varre is given an opportunity to tell his side of the story, to shed some light as to why he did what he did. And all the while he seems so at ease and he even jokes about his circumstances at one point. So just as you start to feel a shred of empathy towards him we’re then thrust back to the trial and the prosecution’s case or testimony from his potential victims. Suddenly we’re reminded that predators come in all shapes and sizes and sometimes it’s the least suspecting ones that you need to be most wary of. Varre and his particularly defensive mother never seem to truly feel clean or genuine, even though he repeatedly claims he’s innocent, his explanations don’t seem all that convincing. But on the other hand, if we’re talking the law and legality you need evidence and aside from his chat conversations and posts in the forums and his illegal accessing of police data files there is nothing physical or tangible to prove his intent to commit the crimes he was writing about.
For the most part Carr’s documentary feels evenly balanced except for the blatantly obvious re-enactments of Valle in front of his computer typing away. Then there’s also the moments where they intercut discussions of roasting women on a spit with repeated shots of Valle innocently cooking dinner in his mother’s kitchen whilst under house arrest. It’s tacky and tactless and could even be a bit of a cheap shot. What also would’ve helped this film would’ve been a broader look at the implications of Valle’s case. The big scale picture of Orwellian surveillance, personal privacy infringement and what can constitute grounds for arrest now that this case has occurred. Carr spends a bit too much time analysing Valle and his life leading up to the conviction rather than looking at the grander implications of what this means for all of us.
Thought Crimes is a focused and extremely unsettling look into the murky depths of where privacy ends and electronic eavesdropping begins. Where the question of intended fantasy becoming actual reality can’t be answered with a simple yes or no. And as with any good true crime story, this one has an open ending since it’s still being investigated so it leaves you to be the judge.
Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 81 minutes
Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop will screen at Sydney Underground Film Festival on Sunday 20th September. For tickets and more information visit the SUFF website.