A junkyard. Row upon row of car carcasses spread across acres of land. That’s Avery’s Auto Salvage, the setting of the Netflix documentary miniseries Making a Murderer. But it’s more than just a place—it’s a visual symbol for the state of a town and its people.
Over ten hours covering 30 years, Making a Murderer repeatedly returns to the salvage yard in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. We see cars covered in snow; sun glinting off smashed windshields; rusting, bent fenders sinking into the earth as seasons pass. This is Steven Avery’s world. We meet him just as he’s being released from prison after serving 18 years for a rape he didn’t commit. He’s short, with a buzz cut and a beard worthy of Duck Dynasty, grinning ear to ear when he’s back in his family’s auto-wreck kingdom.
The first few episodes take us back to 1985, when a scraggly young Avery, recently married, with one child born and more on the way, is convicted of the attempted murder and rape of Penny Beerntsen, a local woman attacked while jogging in a state park. He persistently maintains his innocence, as do most members of his sprawling extended family; a cousin of Avery’s (whose spouse is in the sheriff’s department) is blamed by most of the film’s interviewees for causing his incarceration. Avery is cleared and released 18 years later, when DNA evidence conclusively links the crime to a serial rapist—who might have been caught had the police department not been dead set on Avery’s guilt.
There are no over-the-top grotesque types like Robert Durst in HBO’s The Jinx, nor any cute love-smitten teenagers as in Sarah Koenig’s Serial, but using those recent successful nonfiction shows as reference points, as many early reviewers have, isn’t inaccurate. Like them, Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos’s ten-years-in-the-making program is a diligent dissection of how law and law enforcement is practiced—and abused—in America. By doggedly documenting the mundane, glacial practices of the courts, the filmmakers make the audience feel the steady, crushing weight of the criminal justice system’s cruelest actions. The weariness that materializes on the faces and in the postures of everyone in the show serves as a constant reminder that inertia dooms the ones injustice hasn’t yet taken care of.
Freed, Avery hopes to lead a happy, uneventful life. But first he wants to settle the score with those who wronged him. He becomes a poster boy for the Wisconsin Innocence Project and sues the Manitowoc County police department to compensate him for his 18 lost years. But shortly thereafter the remains of Teresa Halbach, a young photographer for Auto Trader magazine, are found on Avery’s property and he’s back behind bars. The sequence of torments that this slight, barely educated man endures beggar belief, but the filmmakers don’t ever portray Avery as a saint—even when they seem to advocate on his behalf. There’s equally little sympathy shown to the prosecutors, sheriffs, investigators, judges, and various other functionaries of the local and state law enforcement agencies—they come off as callous, conniving, or just plain ignorant. Whether or not Avery is guilty, no one who watches this miniseries will come away believing the way he’s convicted to be just.
The murder investigation is further complicated when Avery’s 16-year-old nephew, Brandon Dassey, confesses to involvement in Halbach’s kidnapping, rape, and murder. Dassey is barely literate, and the many video recordings of his interrogations reveal a person barely able to make sense of the simplest concepts, much less the grave consequences of admitting guilt for the crimes he is accused of committing. He’s bullied by the police as well as his mother—we hear many of his phone calls to her from jail—into continually changing his story.
This whole epic is a nightmare, yet there’s no hope of waking up and resuming everyday life for anyone involved. We’re clearly meant to identify and sympathize with Avery, yet doubts linger. We know he didn’t rape Penny Beerntsen, but could 18 years in jail have turned him into a murderer? One of Making a Murderer‘s greatest virtues is that it allows unresolved questions to linger. We keep passing over the remnants of all those automobiles, watching different members of Avery’s family wander the muddy paths, looking for a vehicle in good enough condition to drive them the hell out of there.