Using innovative, slow-motion re-enactments, Errol Morris cast new light on the murder of a Dallas policeman. As a result, the man wrongly convicted of the crime went free.
There aren’t too many American filmmakers who exhibit the moral seriousness of Zola in pursuit of justice for Dreyfus while also veering off into the jokiness of David Byrne. But then Errol Morris, a man whose most tasteful and accessible work is a mordantly funny documentary on pet cemeteries, is a pretty unusual fellow, and The Thin Blue Line is a very odd film.
Originally, Morris had planned a documentary about psychiatrist Dr. James P. Grigson, (aka Dr. Death and Dr. Doom), a particularly repellent expert witness who has testified in ill capital punishment cases over the past eighteen years, enabling the prosecution to secure 102 death sentences by insisting on the perfect sanity and eternal murderousness of practically anybody. In the course of research, Morris encountered the case of Randall Dale Adams, convicted of murdering Dallas police officer Robert Wood—one of Dr. Death’s many wins. Fascinated by the case, Morris decided that Adams had almost certainly been framed by the police and prosecutors.
From very near the beginning of the case, the Dallas prosecutor knew that David Harris, a 16-year-old runaway, had stolen both the car officer Wood was shot from and the pistol with which he was killed. The prosecutor also knew that David Harris had later boasted about committing the murder. Adams’s lawyers think that the prosecution ignored these facts because under Texas law Harris was too young to be electrocuted, and further believe that an undefeated prosecutor and a police department with a strong desire to execute somebody for the death of an officer concocted new evidence and persuaded Harris to become the prosecution’s star witness. Harris was not immensely persuasive when put before a jury, and the film suggests that the prosecutor produced three last-minute perjured witnesses to clinch the case. The Thin Blue Line ends with an interview with Harris in which the filmmaker comes within a whisker of getting him to confess to the killing.
But The Thin Blue Line tells this story in a curious way. It’s not just Morris’s habit of editing out his interview questions, by now an ancient trick in documentary film, nor is it Philip Glass’s brilliant and immensely effective score. The oddity lies in the film’s highly stylized effects — brazenly campy, jokey effects, which seem deliberately inappropriate to the seriousness of the material and often deliberately enraging.
For instance: An affable Dallas homicide detective mentions a handgun, and a curiously old-fashioned black-and-white print of a revolver pops up, centered in the background of the frame. The print rotates toward the camera, briefly filling the screen, looking oddly like the illustrations from a turn of the century mail-order catalogue.
And later: The same detective mentions that moments before the shooting police rookie Teresa Turko had ordered a chocolate milkshake at a Burger King. In the next re-enactment of the murder, a pudgy actress in a police uniform hurls the milkshake from the patrol car window, and in slow motion the expanding column of liquid arcs out in a wave, the effect reminiscent of the soft-drink commercials conceived in the days when the high-tech look seemed spanking new.
Again and again, the murder is reenacted, each take replete with slowmotion sequences. The camera lingers on many of the kitschy and irrelevant details mentioned in witnesses’ testimony: popcorn in a movie theater, a sequence from an early 1950s television serial, long sequences from a pair of very bad drive-in movies. Noir elements are also present, but they more or less work; one’s first response is that the extremely mannered visual style doesn’t. The scornful, self-adoring specter of David Byrne’s True Stories seems to hang in the air; the population of Dallas, particularly the police, judiciary and prosecution witnesses, appear sinister and oafish, partly because they wear dreadful clothes and smile too much. The film seems to conflate our aesthetic with our moral judgment.
Just what is going on there and why are these moments allowed to undermine the tone created by a number of key characters, beginning with Randall Adams? Adams has a remarkable dignity; he is an eerily calm man with flashes of cool humor, and a manner that seems to register the injustice and inhumanity he has encountered with a kind of quiet amazement; the lazy Midwestern twang of his voice is capable of irony without jeopardizing its ability to evoke the barbarousness of the situation. The flip style is similarly at war with the moral gravity of defense attorney Dennis White (who gave up trial work after Adams was sentenced to death, appalled by the spectacle of judicial murder), and with the unnerving demeanor of David Harris, who seems to have sent an innocent man to his death in a spirit of pique and opportunism. So when you leave the theater whipsawed by the campy, compulsively ironizing eye of the re-enactments and the moral seriousness of the rest of the project, you have to ask yourself what the hell is on Errol Morris’s mind.