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When do horrific thoughts become crimes? Do mere Google searches — even ones as menacing as “What is the best rope to tie someone up with?” and “How do you make chloroform?” — constitute overt acts? Is engaging in online conversations about raping, torturing and murdering women evidence of a conspiracy? These are among the fascinating questions raised by Erin Lee Carr‘s provocative documentary about Gilberto Valle, better known, thanks to tabloid newspapers, as the “Cannibal Cop.” Thought Crimes, which recently received its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, will be broadcast by HBO on May 11.
Whatever one thinks about the case, and there’s certainly plenty to think about, it’s obvious that there are no easy answers. Valle, who cooperated extensively with the filmmaker, comes across here as a deeply embarrassed, mild-mannered man who affirms that all of his Internet activities were merely twisted fantasies that he had no intention of acting on, and that he “couldn’t hurt a fly.” But the copious excerpts from his horrific online conversations and the glimpses of what he obsessed about on such disturbing websites as the Dark Fetish Network is enough to make even the most free speech-minded person want to lock him up and throw away the key.
The legal case was certainly complicated. Valle, whose activities were exposed when his suspicious wife put spyware on his computer and promptly notified the authorities about what she discovered, was indicted on such charges as conspiracy to kidnap and illegally using a law enforcement database to research his (possibly) intended victims. He was convicted on the former charge and spent 21 months in federal prison before being released on house arrest. The following year, a judge, citing insufficient evidence of an actual crime, granted him an acquittal. But his legal troubles still continue.
Besides extensive interviews with Valle and his endlessly loyal mother — his father, who at one point asks, “Is he crazy?” is far less supportive — the film also includes comments by various other figures, including law professors, psychologists, journalists who covered the case, and experts on such things as Internet addiction. Alan Dershowitz, whose presence is apparently obligatory in films of this type, weighs in, as does one of the jurors, her face obscured by shadows. She admits that she and her fellow jurors “were convicting someone on what he wanted to do, not what he did.”
One defense attorney notes, “The jury didn’t want to have a ‘what if’ moment” if they exonerated Valle and he indeed went on to commit a crime. Another asks, “How are you going to feel if you let him out and then he goes out and eats somebody?”
The latter comment is immediately followed, in cutesy fashion, by a shot of Valle vigorously stirring pasta on a stove. Indeed the filmmaker indulges in far too many of these far too obvious cutaways, such as when an onscreen message about Valle expressing a desire to make bacon strips from a woman’s belly segues into a scene of him cooking — what else? — bacon.
Also heard from is a courtroom sketch artist who uncomfortably describes how her duties included drawing pictures of women being cooked alive.
Putting Valle’s twisted fantasies into context by comparing them to the works of Stephen King and torture porn horror films, Carr further reminds us of the dangers of criminalizing thoughts by including scenes from such dystopian sci-fi films as Fahrenheit 51 and Minority Report.
Near the end of the film, Valle expresses a desire to begin dating again. This leads to some ironic humor, such as when he lists “cooking” among his favorite activities on Match.com. Not surprisingly, the online dating company promptly removed his profile.
The filmmaker is the daughter of the late New York Times writer David Carr, who receives a prominent dedication during the end credits.
Production: HBO Documentary Films
Director: Erin Lee Carr
Producers: Erin Lee Carr, Andrew Rossi
Executive producer: Sheila Nevins
Director of photography: Bryan Sarkinen
Editor: Andrew Coffman
Composer: Ian Hultquist
Not rated, 82 min.
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