Netflix's 'Why Did You Kill Me?' Documentary Follows an Unsettling Online Quest
A compelling true-crime story of murder, revenge, and MySpace.
In the opening moments of Netflix's new true-crime documentary Why Did You Kill Me?, the familiar Windows XP theme music plays as an anonymous user boots up a computer. A cursor moves across the blue sky and green hills of the default "Bliss" wallpaper of the Windows operating system and clicks on Internet Explorer, which immediately opens up a tab to MySpace, where images of the UK band The Kooks and Hulk Hogan's aspiring pop star daughter Brooke Hogan appear on the blue-and-white speckled login page. Within the span of seconds, the movie evokes a time and place, tapping into a rich vein of nostalgia for an era of relative digital innocence.
Though Fredrick Munk’s documentary, which premiered on Netflix on April 14, uses a number of familiar filmmaking techniques of the true-crime genre—interviews with suspects and detectives, news footage, interrogation tapes, and crime scene recreations using miniatures—you can tell the movie also wants to provide a similar level of minutia-filled immersion one finds in recent social-media thrillers like Unfriended or Searching, where the mundane rhythms of online life are tinged with menace. (Netflix's American Murder covered some of the same territory while examining a very different case.) That friend you're talking to might not be a friend. The place you go to discover new bands might be more sinister than it looks. The world, especially online, is not as it seems.
As a crime narrative, the actual story of Why Did You Kill Me? is relatively straight-forward. In February 2006, 24-year-old Crystal Theobald was murdered by gunfire coming from men driving in a white Ford Expedition in Riverside, California. Skeptical of the police and driven to find her daughter's killers on he own, Crystal's mother Belinda Lane recruited her teenage niece Jaimie to build a fake MySpace account that they could use to chat with unsuspecting members of the Varrio 5150 gang, which Lane believed was responsible for the crime based on rumors passed on by her son. After using one fake profile, the weed-enthusiast "Rebecca" they used to talk to party-loving guys, Lane and Jaimie created "Angel," a fake persona with Crystal's image for a profile photo. Soon, they were building actual online relationships with men they suspected of being involved with Crystal's murder.
Beyond the Hollywood-ready hook of revenge, it's not hard to see what drew Munk to Lane as a potential subject for a documentary: She speaks with a disarming bluntness, stares into the camera with a high degree of intensity, and doesn't suffer fools. Similarly, her digitally savvy niece is an ideal foil, growing increasingly uncomfortable with the emotional intimacy of the exchanges she has online with various gang members. “Making someone fall in love with someone who is dead is not a good feeling inside," says Jaimie at one point, underscoring how draining their deceptive sleuthing could be.
The justice-seeking aspect of Lane's mission is offset by a recklessness and a grandiosity that the filmmakers frame in a way that calls to mind Breaking Bad or any number of violent shoot-em-ups where a white protagonist faces off against Latino antagonists. At one point, Lane planned for "Angel" to throw a "End of the World Party" where she would invite gang members to an empty area where she could see them and they couldn't see her. "Oh, I was gonna shoot them," she says. (Her sons eventually convince her this plan would end in disaster.) At another point, she talks about driving past the homes of potential suspects and dropping off "that little voodoo doll that came from Spencer's" outside their houses. She also admits to calling the FBI and ICE in hopes of getting different suspected gang members deported.
There's an inherent queasiness to some of this material, a feeling that the filmmakers want you to delight in the cruelty and the cleverness of the ruse. However, in its second half, the film shows a degree of nuance in dealing with fallout of the case, particularly the question of whether or not Lane and her family would pursue the death penalty in the sentencing of Crystal's killer. Through interviews with ex-5150 gang members, the family members of gang members, and the charged member's lawyer, Munk sketches out a perhaps hasty but compelling portrait of a community where drugs, poverty, and a lack of opportunity can drive anyone into a desperate scenario. You wish the film had spent more time examining the case from that angle in the beginning, providing more context and a stronger sense of history, instead of foregrounding the detective's perspective so much in the first half.
As the film draws to a close, Lane, who previously served time for dealing drugs and struggled with addiction, also gets self-reflective about her own grief-clouded quest for vengeance. "I had to take a good look at myself and all of these feelings of being pissed off at the world," she says. "I was mad at me." In its brief runtime, the movie complicates and interrogates Lane's understanding of justice. It's the type of lesson one typically doesn't learn from hiding behind a computer screen.
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