HBO’s documentary, “Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop,” will make you chuckle, it will make you feel uncomfortable, and then it will make you want to delete your Google search history.
In yet another of many recent attempts (“Serial,” “The Jinx”) to re-evaluate a major crime story, director Erin Lee Carr takes on the case of Gilberto Valle, better known as the “Cannibal Cop.“
The film, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and debuts on HBO May 11, follows Valle, a former NYPD police officer who allegedly cooked up a scheme in an online chat room to kidnap, rape, and eat dozens of women.
Valle was convicted in 2013, but after serving jail time, his case was eventually overturned. Some believe he really wanted to do all of this. He claims it was a sick fantasy that he never planned to actually carry out.
Viewers can spend all the time they want deciding whether or not he belongs behind bars. However, this is not a film that is searching for a guilty or innocent verdict. Valle’s story is used to present a bigger, more pressing problem, as “Thought Crimes” is not just about the Cannibal Cop, but about internet culture in general.
“Thought Crimes” evokes the terrifying dystopian ideas of “1984,” “Fahrenheit 451,” and “Minority Report” and suggests we may be living in one of those worlds — where our thoughts can be policed just as easily as our actions. Throughout the film, excerpts from Valle’s many chats about cannibalism pop up on screen. Many of these conversations occurred on a cannibal role-playing fantasy site.
Valle’s conversations were so vivid and so twisted that it seemed less like the thoughts of a troubled man and more like a legitimate murder plot. The person Valle spent much of his time chatting with made it abundantly clear that everything the two of them were discussing was very real to him. Plus, Valle’s use of a police database for information on women he planned on cannibalising clearly crosses the line.
This all gives a good sense of the world view the film presents, in which our thoughts can be used against us; we now have the ability to broadcast our worst ideas anywhere, but every chat session feels more private than it actually is. In this future, there is no line between “thought” and “action.” Valle is a great anti-hero for this case study because his case, and his personality, are clouded in ambiguity. By the end, it is impossible to know whether or not he really wanted to actually pull off any of the crimes he described.
The film itself presents incredibly dark subject matter in a surprisingly humorous way. It might be partially because the alleged Cannibal Cop seems to have a good sense of humour about seeing his life get completely destroyed. After all, the entire world had afield daywith this story, likely without realising that his actions ruined his life and tore his family apart.
While there is nothing funny about what put Valle in prison in the first place, the film’s best moments come from bits of comedy which materialise through the editing process, masterfully executed by Andrew Coffman. For instance, Valle’s explanations about why he isn’t a cannibal are interspersed with shots of him cooking meals including bacon as well as pasta with meat sauce.
Unlike previous true-crime documentaries, “Thought Crimes” leaves you with nobody to fully blame.
Instead the viewer is left to think about how people are now much more willing to post personal, incriminating information about themselves for the whole world to see. Overall, HBO’s latest documentary makes a good case that everyone should be a lot more cautious about what they search for online.
“Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop” premieres on HBO May 11 at 9 p.m. ET.
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