Aside from posting an announcement for the 5th Wonderful Ingrid Bergman Blogathon (*wink wink!*), I haven’t written a lot of my blog since I came back to Montreal. For this new blog article, I wanted to share with you one of the series I’ve discovered recently (I’m more in a series mood than a film mood these days). I suspect a lot of people have, at least, heard of recent Netflix series like Sex Education (Eleven Film, 2019-) or Russian Dolls (Kate Arend, John Skidmore and Ryan McCormick, 2019-). However, today I will drag your focus on the excellent mini-documentary series The Confession Killer which revolves the odd and fascinating story of “””serial killer””” Henry Lee Lucas, one of the most twisted true crime stories of 20th century-US. Robert Kenner and Taki Oldham directed the series which consists of five episodes of more or less 45 minutes. It was released in December 2019 as a Netflix original.
I don’t often write about TV shows and series on my blog, except from time to time during the Favourite TV Episode Blogathon, but, while I was watching The Confession Killer, there was a lot of ideas popping in my mind, and I thought it would be good material for an article. Plus, it’s excellent, and I hope this article will encourage you to see it, even if true crime stories aren’t usually your thing!
For those who might not have heard of Henry Lee Lucas, he was a serial killer who confessed to more than 200 murder cases (at one point it even reached 600). However, most of these confessions turned out to be untrue. As a matter of fact, Lucas was undeniably responsible for three murders: his mother, a young lady known as Becky Powell and an elderly woman named Kate Rich. Eight more murders could have been associated with Lucas, but nothing was ever confirmed. What interests us more in this series is what drove a man to confess to a considerable number of murder cases that he hadn’t done. The series explores Lucas’s personality, his relationship with the Texas Rangers who were involved in the case, the journalists and attorneys who saw through the hoax, the family of the victims, Lucas’ relationship to Ottis Toole, another infamous serial killer, etc.
And what precisely makes this series great is the fact that it doesn’t solely focus on Lucas. If it had been the case, it might have gotten nowhere. By involving other figures and focusing on how this case influenced their careers and even their personal lives, there is a real evolution in what the series presents to its spectator. We witness the impact of inventing such a story. Taking, for example, the third episode, this one mostly focuses on the “war” between the Rangers with whom Lucas collaborated in his confession and former district attorney Vic Feazell who did his investigation about the considered classified cases (by the Rangers) which resulted in his arrest. Of course, Lee Lucas is always in the portrait in this episode because he is, after all, the starting point of this whole twisted business, but this episode emphasizes on Feazell and sheriff Jim Boutwell who has been suspected of being behind some of Lucas’s lies.
Consequently, the series is well constructed and follows a logical chronological order but doesn’t hesitate to go back to the events to find clues and give support to the facts that are presented. It more or less goes from Lucas’s arrest and his unsuspected confession, in court, of having killed 150+ people; his collaboration with the Rangers to solve these crimes, leading them to tour the country and the crime scene; the suspicions that led, not only Vic Feazell but also journalist Hugh Aynesworth and the victim’s relatives to make their own investigation, the problems with the Rangers involved in this case, Lucas’s death (he died in jail of heart failure) and how some of the investigations continued after his death thanks to the new DNA technology.
The series is made in a way that captivates us and makes us want to know more about this case and how things evolved. One of the main reasons why it is so interesting and consists of such good material for a tv series or a film is because the people involved in the Lee Lucas story were true characters. Just take the Texas Rangers for example. With the way they talk, their cowboy hats, their aura of heroes, they stand out like real mythical film characters. However, the series shows us that they are precisely not as perfect as they seem to be. Then, Henry Lee Lucas’s psychological portrait is something that picks our curiosity. While the reasons why he invented these confessions are still mysterious, one of the motives is, undeniably, the reach for fame and recognition from a man without a story. That was a pattern used by Ted Bundy and many other serial killers. But Lee Lucas was not Ted Bundy. He did not have his charisma and intelligence (note: I’m not glorifying Bundy here, but that’s pretty much how he was presented). Therefore, his act of seeking fame through these inventions sounds even more desperate. And this man, who was pretty much nothing, managed to prove how manipulations can lead to a situation that we could qualify of historical.
Something that I highly appreciated, and I believe it would be the case for most people who watch the series is the equilibrium created throughout the episodes. Indeed, the first episode focuses on Lucas’s origins, his mother who tortured him psychologically and physically, his encounter with Jailhouse Minister’s Clemmie Schroeder who became Lucas’s friend and who was pretty much the first person to make him feel good about himself and to have a bit of compassion for others. All these facts that could make us think, “poor little man”. However, the second episode focuses on his victims. We are reminded that this man remains a criminal after all. He was not a saint. It allows us to study man from different angles. We are then free to form our personal opinion about him with the material presented to us. Another form of equilibrium is created by the fact that the bad guy of the story was not only Lucas but also the Rangers suspected of having washed Lucas’s brain, which led him to these false confessions. Concerning that, it’s pretty odd to see how the criminal is almost treated as a friend by the Rangers, in opposition to Feazell who was the one treated like a real criminal because he decided to oppose himself to the powerful institution represented by the Rangers. In the last episode, one of the victims’ relative, after having been proved that Lucas was not responsible for the killing, declares how she hates him but how she hates the Rangers even more for creating this version of Lucas. The frustrating thing about the hundreds of victims that were not Lucas’s is the fact that a lot of the cases were not solved by lack of will from the law enforcement.
Therefore, the series is not only the story of Lucas, but also the complex critic of a not-so-perfect institution.
What played in favour of this tv series is the fact that it is about a not-so-old story (the 80s). Consequently, there was a lot of archival material available to make it something visually interesting to accompany the narrative lines. The editing between the archival images and the contemporary ones is done with fluidity. The past is, therefore, well joined to the present. They also involved a lot of pertinent key people for interviews being retired Rangers, journalists, attorneys, FBI people, some of the victims’ relatives, etc. Thus, the final product feels complete and, although a lot of questions remains unanswered, the series answers a lot of questions. Of course, those like me who appreciate it wish it would have lasted longer!
Another technical aspect that I loved about this series is the music which was composed by Jason Hill. There’s something weird and somehow hunting about it that fits well with the twisted story and psychology of Henry Lee Lucas.
The Confession Killer was well received by the critic, being rated 100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and 7.7/10 on IMDB. In an article for The Guardian, Stuart Heritage wrote of the series that it was perhaps “Netflix’s smartest true crime saga of them all”. (1) Writer and editor Brian Tallerico who was, like me, not too familiar with Lee Lucas before watching the series, qualifies it of “well-constructed” (2) which I, of course, completely agree with.
If the series provides good “entertainment”, we still hope some of the victims’ families, whose case hasn’t been solved yet, eventually find justice and more help. Hopefully, the guilty ones will be found one day.
If this reviewed picked your curiosity, I’ve accomplished my mission! Meanwhile, I also invite you to check the trailer:
See you soon, I hope!
(1) Stuart Heritage, “The Confession Killer could well be Netflix’s smartest crime saga yet,” The Guardian, December 10, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2019/dec/10/the-confession-killer-could-well-be-netflix-smartest-saga-yet
(2) Brian Tallerico, “The Confession Killer Turns Lies into Fascinating True Story,” Roger Erbert.com, December 3, 2019, https://www.rogerebert.com/streaming/the-confession-killer-turns-lies-into-fascinating-true-story