TFF2015: Thought Crimes

What's eating him? Gilberto Valle in Thought Crimes

          I followed the “Cannibal Cop” case when it was in the news—living in New York, it was pretty hard not to.  The saga of Gilberto Valle, the NYPD officer accused of plotting to stalk, kill, and eat women was the kind of lurid stuff that brought to mind The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  The idea that all of it was fantastical, twisted sexual fantasy being treated like criminal activity brought up all sorts of thorny questions about free speech and internet privacy, and Valle’s initial conviction was quickly overturned.

            Erin Lee Carr’s documentary on this sensational subject manages to be both gripping and thoughtful, though it’s not quite as classy as it thinks it is.  Carr’s intimate access to Gil and his family result in a slice of life portrait of people caught up in an utterly bizarre situation.  Gil’s mom, Elizabeth, is worried and just wants her son out of prison and back home.  Gil himself seems like a nice enough everyman, although the shots of his face intently staring at the computer screen and the transcripts of his sordid internet chats hint at a ghoul beneath the façade.

            The movie follows the twists and turns of Gil’s first trial, conviction, and release, and we experience his anxiety and fear in a way that humanizes him.  But extensive treatment is also given to his twisted exchanges through Dark Fetish Net and the hotly contested details of his “plans” with other men to torture and kill women Gil knew personally.  Just when you think the record proves this was all just fervent imagining, a new exchange written out onscreen makes you queasy and doubtful.  Psychologists, experts, and commentators all weigh in at various points, along with one of the jurors and, via an actress’ readings, Gil’s own wife.  There is discussion of the slippery slope convictions for “thought crimes” could put us on as a society, with apt references to the likes of 1984 and Minority Report.  However, a full on treatment of that debate seems beyond the scope of this documentary, focused as it is on the specifics of Gil’s case.

            I’m impressed by the way Carr uses suggestive imagery and real time “chats” to bring the dark workings of Gil’s mind to life.  But the endless shots of the Valles cooking at home are exploitative and crude, especially when edited in right after descriptions of gory fantasies for maximum shock.  (When Gil comments, “No one’s nervous that I have a fork in my hand, right?” I did laugh.  No one else did.)  And after 80 minutes of mostly considered and inquisitive discourse, Carr ends the film with a bouncy rock song and a montage of media types making jokes about Gil’s profile.  In trying to be both sophisticated and in your face, Thought Crimes seems to be—if you’ll pardon the expression—trying to have its cake and eat it, too.

Thought Crimes screens tomorrow, April 25 at 9:15pm at Chelsea’s Bow Tie Cinemas as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.  The film will air on HBO May 11.

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