Gilberto Valle, the “Cannibal Cop,” never ate anyone. Can he still be called a cannibal if he only fantasized about it on the Internet? When he was arrested, the government asserted that conversations he had on the online community DarkFetishNet amounted to a conspiracy to kidnap. Defenders of Valle have insisted that this is an example of prosecution for “thought crime.” The term, popularized by George Orwell’s 1984, is certainly a scary one. Yet does the label really fit? Do Google searches and online chats conducted at home, alone, count as only harmless thoughts?
All of these very 21st century questions are brought up in Erin Lee Carr’s Thought Crimes, a documentary analysis of Valle’s case. The basic details are these: Valle was arrested on September 25th, 2012 after his wife turned over records of his activity on DarkFetishNet to the police. Two months later he was charged with conspiracy to kidnap and with illegally accessing a law-enforcement database. The accusation, essentially, was that he conspired with his online friends to kidnap, rape, murder and eat various women, including one family friend who he and his wife visited in the summer of 2012.
Valle was convicted on both counts on March 12th, 2013. Carr began interviewing him in jail while he awaited the results of his lawyer’s efforts to get the ruling overturned. In a very rare move, a judge acquitted Valle of the first charge on July 1st, 2014 and he was allowed to move to his mother’s home, where he would remain on house arrest until further resolution of the case. Carr continued filming his story from there, through the sentencing hearing for the database charge last November and the subsequent wait for the government to appeal.
After covering all of this with remarkable agility and clarity, Carr uses Thought Crimes to dive into the nitty gritty of some major philosophical questions. This is not a simple discourse, nor does it clearly pick a side in Valle’s case. It is, rather, an unmoored journey through the information age’s most confusing ethical waters. To prove conspiracy, the government must prove the existence of “overt acts.” Two people can’t simply talk about something to be guilty, they must also make a step in the direction of following their plan. Can a Google search for how to make choloform be an overt act, or would Valle need to have acquired chloroform in reality? (He didn’t.)
The discussion rapidly expands from there. The defense argues that these online conversations were a way to cope with his urges, rather than a means of realizing them. Carr interviews experts on the Internet and psychology to discern whether this makes any sense. Many argue the opposite, that online fantasies are much more likely to underline and support a sexual desire. Other featured journalists and academics dispute whether Valle’s discussions count as planning, whether we are more or less our true selves when online, and whether this case means the beginning of a dangerous new kind of thought crime prosecution. Carr moves between subjects and opinions with remarkable timing, constantly beckoning the audience this way and that, always asking questions but never letting a definitive answer settle for long.
If Carr’s style has a weakness, it has to do with her evocation of sensationalism and the way that the media have thrown themselves onto this story. Sometimes Thought Crimes feels like a sardonic critique of the obsession with cases like this, particularly by the tabloids of Valle’s own city. The New York Post is a dependably absurd culprit, and Carr features a number of their more insensitive cover stories. Yet she occasionally dips a little too far in this direction herself. There is an awful lot of footage in the film of Valle cooking and eating, everything from bacon and omelettes to pasta. It’s the dominant image, an appeal to a more lurid style of crime journalism, a style later underlined by the anonymous interview with one of the jurors who convicted Valle.
In spite of this, however, Thought Crimes is a successful in its commitment to asking all of the right questions, and refusing to answer them with the simple soundbytes that we all sometimes crave. It’s a promising debut feature, and its in-depth journalistic commitment to seriously mulling over every significant question is refreshing. Valle’s case has gone to appeal and it may be a long time before it’s finally resolved, but Thought Crimes at least ensures that the discussion of its real issues will continue to penetrate the panicked noise.
Thought Crimes will premiere on HBO on May 11th.