'Who Killed Garrett Phillips?': TV Review

HBO
Infuriating and confounding.
7/23/2019

HBO wraps up three weeks of two-part crime documentaries with Liz Garbus' exploration of the murder of a 12-year-old boy in upstate New York.

Documentaries about injustices in the legal system aren't just a successful genre within the nonfiction space; they're basically an industry of their own. That makes it hard to know exactly the distinction that HBO thought it was making with July's trio of two-part docuseries airing on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, but however minor the contrast may be with the premium giant's more typical feature-length Monday documentaries, I like that HBO's commitment to nonfiction storytelling includes mixing up the rhythms and structures (if not the aesthetics) of the format.

Erin Lee Carr's I Love You, Now Die, P.A. Carter's Behind Closed Doors and Liz Garbus' Who Killed Garrett Phillips? all occupy a narrative space slightly longer than a feature might allow, but slightly shorter than a six- or eight-hour series might encompass — and why, after all, should one size fit all? Without feeling formally groundbreaking, all three have been illuminating and infuriating and capable of being consumed either in smaller episodic bites or giant binged gulps.

Who Killed Garrett Phillips? is a good close for the trio because it's also occupying a middle ground. Garbus' doc is neither as chillingly universal and of-the-moment as the cyber-romance-fueled I Love You, Now Die, nor as distant and anthropological as the India-set Behind Closed Doors. Maybe it couldn't exactly happen to you, but Who Killed Garrett Phillips? could happen down the street or in the town next door.

Told as something resembling two back-to-back feature-length docs — I Love You, Now Die could, if we're being honest, have easily been trimmed down to one, tighter 125-minute feature — Who Killed Garrett Phillips? chronicles the 2011 murder of 12-year-old Garrett Phillips and the circumstances (and coincidences) that, over five years, led to the trial of Oral "Nick" Hillary, a Jamaican-American college soccer coach and Garrett's mother's ex-boyfriend.

These three HBO two-parters have all examined the messiness of the legal system in different ways. Carter had to do a lot of logistical explaining. Carr mirrored a trial, presenting one side of the case persuasively on the first night and then flipping the facts and sympathies in the second night. Garbus' key weapon is some semblance of objectivity.

Documentaries like this can easily become one-sided affairs by virtue of which figures are willing or able to go on the record. Here, Garbus gets solid representation of principals on both sides. Hillary is the documentary's sympathetic central figure and I guess most viewers will quickly determine that he was being mistreated at every step of the process, but the number of police figures and prosecuting attorneys still willing to stand behind their investigative and courtroom decisions is impressive. That you're probably going to want to see the myopic district attorney and the case's stubborn lead detective pilloried in the town square isn't due to any thumb-on-the-scale propagandizing from Garbus. Even when the series glances in the direction of other suspects, and at least one of them is a civil and reasonable-seeming talking head, the audience isn't pushed to make accusations.

Garbus isn't out here playing detective and hasn't taken it upon herself to solve the murder and that leads to a documentary that's ambiguous and intentionally frustrating in a way that's unique in this roster of July docs. In I Love You, Now Die, the frustration comes from that case somehow becoming even more subjective the more facts you learn. In Behind Closed Doors, there's a frustration that comes from "otherness," an internal response we're supposed to self-interrogate. Here, Garbus presents pieces of the prosecution's evidence — surveillance and interrogation footage primarily — and leaves it for viewers to ask, "Wait, how can this be allowed to happen?" There's no direct blame placed on the prosecuting attorneys or police officers, just a litany of leads unfollowed and suspects unpursued. If you come away from long stretches wondering, "But what about... ?" or "Why hasn't anybody mentioned... ?" that's the doc's subtle form of finger-pointing. This generates less a feeling of immediate observational rage than something more complicated.

The film tries to complicate matters more by positioning the crime within the context of its rural upstate New York setting. It solidly illustrates how Hillary's race and outsider status made him an easy scapegoat. I would have loved to have seen more exploration of Potsdam's economic circumstances and the role of the prison industrial complex in fueling the local economy, juxtaposed against the role played by four local universities. It isn't just town-and-gown, it's badge-and-gown. Capturing the community in documentaries like this is very hard and for all of its balance within the case itself, Who Killed Garrett Phillips? can't always flesh out the world around it in the way this expanded screen time might have allowed.

With docs like Bobby Fischer Against the World, Love, Marilyn and Nothing Left Unsaid, Garbus has been one of the most prolific and solid directors in HBO's unscripted stable and she gives a strong close to this three-week series of format experimentation. You may not come away from Who Killed Garrett Phillips? with a clear answer on the title question or with any one single and specific judicial impropriety. You'll just have plenty to ponder and argue about.

Airdate: Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)