As someone who’s still getting over HBO’s The Jinx, I don’t know what I was expecting from the network’s latest documentary, rather tellingly titled Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop, but rest assured that if you’re falling asleep too easily at night, here’s a very viable solution. I left the film deeply unsettled, and like the dark ideas that rattled around subject Gilberto Valle’s head and brought prosecutors as well as a media firestorm to his doorstep, I have a feeling Thought Crimes won’t be leaving me anytime soon.
As directed by Erin Lee Carr, this latest attempt to crack a sensational case wide open and examine every gory detail is both a thorough presentation of Valle’s ordeal and a thought-provoking (if less rigorous) rumination on the nature of privacy in the modern surveillance state. Gilberto’s then-wife, horrified by what she uncovered on his computer, was responsible for bringing her husband, at the time a police officer with a not-insignificant amount of power, to the attention of the authorities. But Thought Crimes branches out a little further – regardless of what dark fantasies the guy wrote about in seedy internet backrooms, what right did police have to hold him accountable for them? And if his wife had not turned him in, but an investigator got on Gilberto’s trail for a different reason, would the same end result have been justified?
First, a little background. Valle is known as the “cannibal cop” – he was accused and arrested by the FBI back in 2012 for allegedly planning the abduction, rape, slaughtering and consumption of several women. If that sentence alone is enough to turn your stomach, Thought Crimes may be tough going. The doc dives headfirst down the grotesque rabbit hole that is DarkFetishNetwork.com, the online site where Valle posted his fantasies and discussed them with others, complete with disturbing images of dead and butchered women along with equally – if not more – obscene messages from Valle like how he dreams of “letting her bleed out then butcher her while she hangs.”
It’s sick stuff, to be sure – but Thought Crimes questions whether Valle’s thoughts, no matter how cruel and sadistic, are enough to constitute a crime. The guy never acted on any of these impulses, despite potentially accurate assertions by the prosecution that he was taking steps toward executing an abduction. What (rightly) screwed him was his chilling misappropriation of the police database to research women he had discussed (and posted pictures of) as potential victims. Coming on the heels of police-related deaths in South Carolina (where an officer shot an unarmed man from behind then planted a taser near his body to support a false narrative) and Maryland (where six police snapped an arrestee’s neck after placing him under arrest), Thought Crimes is just another damning piece of evidence for the case that we need to definitively answer quis custodiet ipsos custodes – and fast.
Perturbed by how Valle had abused his authority to stalk would-be victims, despite the defense’s argument that all his searching constituted little more than dark fantasy, a jury convicted Valle of conspiracy to kidnap in 2013. Many thought the case would end there, with the cannibal cop behind bars and away from any tender human morsels. A stunning shift came during the appeals process, however, when a judge overturned the sentence and released him back into the world 21 months later. Carr first made contact with the so-called cannibal cop while he was incarcerated, and her camera is at the ready throughout the sensational appeals process, on which the press descended like a pack of ravenous wolves. “Bone appetit – Mom cooks dinner for freed cannibal cop!” One headline read.
As one might expect, it’s not difficult to make an absorbing documentary about someone like Valle, simultaneously a victim of the Internet age and a potential monster defanged by its transparency. With his babyish cheeks and tired eyes, Valle doesn’t look like the kind of guy you’d instinctively fear – but as Thought Crimes cuts between abhorrent conversations (in which he exults at the prospect of gutting his own wife for sexual pleasure) and re-enactments of him staring intently at a computer screen, you start to get the picture of him as someone who could be really, really dangerous, precisely because even he doesn’t know how serious his thoughts are. As far as HBO’s doc subjects go, he’s slightly less detestable than Robert Durst, with a surprising sense of good humor about the course of events (“Nobody’s alarmed I have a fork in my hand with people around?” He jokes to Carr while cooking), but often just as skin-crawling.
Carr, unfortunately, makes some key mistakes in how she presents his stranger-than-fiction story. Intercutting conversations about roasting helpless women alive with repeated shots of Valle cooking food in his mother’s kitchen is a cheap shot, and it suggests that the filmmaker either made up her own mind about the guy early on or couldn’t resist adding theatrical flourishes. It’s hard to say which would be worse, given how sordidly compelling Valle’s story is already. She also fails to press him when his narrative doesn’t match up with the facts.
Even more frustratingly, Carr spends too much of her time documenting Valle, from childhood videos up through his signing up for Match.com post-appeal, without putting his story in the broader context her title would seem to suggest. The discussion of personal privacy infringements, Orwellian surveillance over civilians’ minds and what constitutes grounds for an arrest is a truly fascinating and complicated one, but Thought Crimes never engages with it. The filmmaker is content to present her subject’s ugliest messages to the other DarkFetishNet members, document the trial and leave audiences to decide for themselves whether Valle is a criminal or just a creep. A more direct discussion of the bigger issues the case touches on would have been enlightening.
Many people will watch Thought Crimes just for the indelible shivers it’ll send down their spine, the half-horrified and half-transfixed feeling of seeing something that they were never, ever intended to see. And the doc provides that in spades. Carr even exposes a few weirdos beyond her subject – when asked about the trial, the court illustrator says a little too eagerly, “I got to do people on spits,” jabbing her finger at one picture where she’s etched the naked bodies of women on the DarkFestishNet site – which adds more layers to the discussion of whether our darkest thoughts should ever be prosecutable.
Thought Crimes is too focused to make much of an impact beyond true-crime fans, but its key questions deserve to be discussed on a worldwide platform. What’s the line between fantasy and conspiracy? Is what we type into the Google search bar a reflection of our most burning desires or a way to carelessly deal with drifting notions? Is wishful thinking, carried out from behind the all-obscuring veil of web anonymity, always a precursor to real-world crime? And even if so, does the state ever have the right to round up the creeps just based on what they say is in their head?
Valle has had his fill of these questions. He’s ready to move on with his life, get to dating again (how, with the tabloids still hounding him, is a question he can’t answer) and never engage with an Internet chatroom again, or so he says. But as surveillance grows increasingly invasive, and people like Valle serve up their darkest thoughts for police to probe, one has to wonder whether the cannibal cop’s experience is a portend of things to come – and whether the consequences of losing the Internet as a private playground is worth it to catch those select few individuals actually capable of carrying out the depraved notions in their head.
This is all compelling, stomach-churning stuff, but one wishes that Carr dug deeper into the broader implications of the cannibal cop's downfall.