'I Love You, Now Die': TV Review

A layered tale that will force you to constantly second-guess your own assessment.
7/9/2019

HBO's captivating two-part documentary dissects the death of Conrad Roy, a teenager who ended his own life following his girlfriend's encouragements.

In July 2014, 18-year-old Conrad Roy climbed into his truck stationed in a Kmart parking lot and intentionally inhaled carbon monoxide, poisoning himself and ending his life. Hailing from a tiny coastal village in southern Massachusetts, the teenager had just graduated high school, been accepted to college and obtained his captain’s license as the successor to a patrilineal legacy of professional boatmen. He was also profoundly depressed with a long history of suicide ideation. Following his death, investigators discovered thousands of text messages exchanged between him and an epistolary girlfriend who not only neglected to seek outside help when she believed Roy was in danger, but, in fact, implored him to go through with his final act. "Why don't you just drink bleach?" she asks, sounding exasperated.

Abhorrent? Yes. Immoral? Absolutely. Criminal? Unclear.

In 2017, the state convicted Michelle Carter of involuntary manslaughter for her brutal haranguing (which she's now appealing to the Supreme Court under claims of free speech). But the question of whether the 17-year-old girl was ultimately responsible for her boyfriend’s death is the crux of HBO’s captivating two-part documentary I Love You, Now Die, which relies on journalistic expertise, contradictory witness testimony, absorbing courtroom video recordings and the shocking text exchanges themselves to parse the sticky legal push-and-pull of the case. It's the stuff of a Jodi Picoult novel.

Director Erin Lee Carr (Mommy Dead and Dearest) deftly layers her story with arguments, reveals and twists that will continuously unearth and rebury your opinion on Carter’s culpability, even long after the doc’s final moments. (Night one is devoted to Roy's alleged point-of-view; night two explores Carter's.) No matter how your judgment vacillates, the more you learn, the more you just realize how deeply weird this story is. And as Carr demonstrates via recorded interviews with incredulous Massachusetts locals, the Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter is endlessly debatable. (Warning: Best not bring up the case during an otherwise pleasant vacation dinner with friends.)

Like the popular teen drama 13 Reasons Why, which also unpacks the tragedy of suicide, I Love You, Now Die is an inverse whodunit: a metaphysical mystery where you already know whodunit, but not exactly why or who else may be objectively liable. Could mere words alone Wormtongue a person toward his or her own death? Can prosecutors and defense attorneys prove the nature of free will? What is the cognitive neuroscience behind two psychologically impaired adolescents manipulating each other with the tools of technological dystopia?

The case was unprecedented. After all, soliciting a murder is a crime… but it's an underlying crime regardless. Part detective story, part cautionary tale and part courtroom drama, the documentary weaves you through multiple (and often confounding) angles, from Roy’s unreliable narrator parents to Carter’s Teflon defense team to a quack doctor who may or may not have a sound argument in the end.

Ultimately, however, the narrative is more akin to a seaside Lynchian fever dream, your brain conjuring up actors like Miles Teller and Cara Delevingne whispering horrible nothings at each other into the thin air of night. Much of the doc is peppered with images of bucolic New England lighthouses and rippling oceanic waters set against Roy and Carter’s pinging texts to each other. These silent moments reading their staccato, teen-speak sentences lull you into an elegiac rhythm, their words bobbling along like a shared poem. They both claim to have seen Satan.

Were Roy’s anxiety, depression and multiple suicide attempts a result of his parents’ acrimonious divorce and sometimes violent aggression toward him? Did Carter encourage Roy’s suicide because she was a needy self-harmer struggling with mental health issues, a sociopath seeking attention as a grieving girlfriend, a daydreamer living in a romantic Glee-fueled fantasy world or a misguided friend trying to ease his suffering? Truthfully, the pair were more pixel than flesh to each other, having lived only an hour away by car but never meeting in person more than a handful of times in the two years of their relationship. Carr questions which party actually had the least tenuous grasp on reality.

Carter herself is the true cipher of this tale, her alleged motive merely eked out from slick defense lawyers, controversial psychiatrists, investigative reporters and her own enigmatic texts. But it all feels like hearsay — even her own words. (She was a known liar to her friends, for example.) Her impenetrable face sits impassively throughout large portions of her trial, even as evidence of her own guilt and frailty come to life. You get no sense of her possible contrition or humiliation, which is riveting to watch in and of itself.  

You only hear her high, childlike voice once during the documentary, audio from her interviews with police prior to her arrest. But aside from being privy to educated guesses about her mental state at the time she played a devil on Roy's shoulder, we get no sense of her biography. Both she and her parents declined to be interviewed for this film, but regardless, the producers should have filled us in on the broader context of her life and upbringing.

Still, Carr smartly constructs this story with plenty of cultural analysis, offering viewers insight into the trope of the teenage seductress/succubus/witch who lures innocent men to her doom. After all, Boston's suburbia is still the palimpsest of a Puritan colony that prosecuted over a dozen innocent women during the Salem witch trials. Three hundred years later, though, there's now recorded evidence of modern monstrosity.

Director: Erin Lee Carr
Producers: Sheila Nevins, Sara Bernstein, Erin Lee Carr, Andrew Rossi, Alison Byrne
Premieres: Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)