Last of the Monster Kids

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Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Director Report Card: Errol Morris (1988)

3. The Thin Blue Line

After “Vernon, Florida,” Errol Morris didn’t make another movie for seven years. The director has admitted that he had difficulty finding funding for a new film. In order to pay the bills, the filmmaker start working as a private detective. It’s through these avenues that Morris became aware of Dr. James Grigson. Nicknamed “Dr. Death,” Grigson often worked with the Texas justice system, convincing juries that offenders were likely to commit violence again and were thus eligible for the death penalty. Instead, Morris became interested in the case of Randall Dale Adams, a seemingly innocent man on death row. “The Thin Blue Line” would not only have Adams’ sentence overturned but would reignite Morris’ career as a director.

In 1978, Randall Adams and his brother traveled to Texas, where Adams quickly found work. In October, while on the way to work, Adams’ car ran out of gas. While hitchhiking, he was picked up by David Ray Harris, a mentally unstable teenager with a history of violent crimes. After smoking some pot and seeing a drive-in movie, the two were stop for a routine check by police. Unbeknownst to Adams, Harris had stolen the car. The younger man pulled out a pistol and shot the police officer to death. Despite ample evidence pointing towards Harris as the perpetrator, Adams was convicted of the crime. Ten years later, he was serving out a lifetime sentence in a Texan prison. This is where “The Thin Blue Line” comes in.

“The Thin Blue Line” documents a true story but unfolds like a mystery. There’s an incredible moodiness, lent by its music and direction. The question in “The Thin Blue Line” is not who murdered Officer Robert W. Wood. The film presents more than enough evidence to clear Randall Adams of any crime, while David Ray Harris emerges clearly as the murderer. Instead, the central question of the film is how was an innocent man convicted for such a lurid crime while the actual killer was allowed to go free? Morris, using his technique of piercing interviews, attempts to get at the answer. As always, the director’s unblinking camera gives the subjects more than enough rope to hang themselves.

While “The Thin Blue Line” features plenty of the documentation's trademark interviews, the movie also represents a major leap forward for Errol Morris’ style as a director. The documentary makes extensive use of reenactments. (The film relies on them to such a degree that “The Thin Blue Line’ was expelled from the Best Documentary category at the Oscars that year, despite being the most acclaimed entry in that genre of 1988.) While sticking as closely to the facts as possible, Morris shoots these sequences like modern day film noir. Thick shadows and, yes, the color blue influence the reenactments. A lingering close-up on a tossed milk shake or a falling body draw attention to the details of the crime. There’s a quiet suspense to the shots of a firing gun or the soon-to-be murderer sitting at a drive-in movie theater. One brilliant scene, a crash zoom on the tail end of a car, shows the fallibility of human memory.

“The Thin Blue Line” doesn’t merely show recreations of the crime scene, like the countless true crime shows that would follow in its wake. While “Gates of Heaven” and “Vernon, Florida” were intentionally stylistically restrained, “The Thin Blue Line” reveals the artistic filmmaker that was always inside Morris. The film is fantastically edited. Morris’ stationary interviews cut between the daring reenactments. Photographs of newspapers and crime scene pictures are featured. Old news presentations and film clips are featured. Most impressively, “The Thin Blue Line” sometimes cuts away to artistic, isolated shots, like a pocket watch swinging across the scene. Or cars traveling along a road at night. While Morris’ previous films were brilliant, they often came across as the work of a first timer. “The Thin Blue Line” shows an artist coming totally into their own.

“Gates of Heaven” was a movie about grief, death, and the afterlife. “Vernon, Florida” was about small town philosophy and personalities. “The Thin Blue Line” has a much sharper, political point. The documentary is essentially an indictment of Texas justice. Why was Randall Adams persecuted and convicted for a crime he didn’t commit, especially when David Ray Harris’ guilt was fairly obvious? Essentially, the police department was eager to pin the crime – the murder of a fellow cop – on anyone. Adams was badgered into signing a confession and the court was willing to sentence him to death, despite the lack of evidence.(The film is also willing to point out the town’s connection to the Klu Klux Klan, casting doubt on everyone’s honor.)  Through these lines, “The Thin Blue Line” becomes a wider condemnation of the death penalty. When such an obvious miscarriage of justice can happen, how can we trust the court system to end anyone’s life?

As interview subjects, Randall Adams and David Ray Harris are very different figures. Adams is quiet, his accent-less voice detailing events as he remembers them plainly. He cuts the figure of an everyman, a laid-back and normal person who wound up in a very bad situation. His nature is so becoming and plain that even an admittance that he smoked pot seems out of character. Harris, meanwhile, cuts the figure of someone very unstable. He speaks in a gritty whisper, often punctuating his statements with inappropriate laughter. Harris seems like an incredibly untrustworthy person. After the police officer’s murder, Harris wound up in prison for another, unrelated murder. The chilling conclusion to “The Thin Blue Line” is an audio-only interview with Harris where he more-or-less confesses to the central crime. In other words, Morris finds two compelling interview subjects on his journey for justice.

There are other odd characters that pop up in “The Thin Blue Line.” The most memorable of which are a married couple who may have witnessed the murder. The blonde wife reveals an obsession with crime stories. She sees murders and mysteries all around her, which she links to a childhood fascination with detective shows. Self-professed nosy people like this aren’t helping police investigation, especially since an expert later asserts that she saw nothing. Meanwhile, her husband casually admits to cheating on his wife during his interview. The police who pinned the slaying on Adams seem relaxed and even jovial, casually detailing the process of committing an innocent man to death.

Holding “The Thin Blue Line” together is a score from Philip Glass. Glass’ main theme features pounding strings, slowly building in intensity. While the rising tempo of the music suggest a coming sense of freedom, the lower strings underneath the main melody create a growing feeling of unease. The combination suggest that Adams may soon be free but that it will be a difficult journey for him. A darker variation of the same music underscores Adams’ version of events. A flightier theme accompanies the introduction of the Texas skyline. Glass even employs some intentionally cheesy synth when the blonde mystery-enthusiast is interviewed, suggesting how goofy her theories are. While Glass’ work here is unlikely to win over naysayers – it’s as repetitive and minimalist as most of his film scores – it certainly provides the film with some of its power.

“The Thin Blue Line” has an interesting legacy. The film helped clear Randall Adams of any charges, freeing a wrongfully accused innocent man. After becoming a free man, Adams sued Errol Morris, claiming the filmmaker had unfairly bought the rights to his life story. Morris has expressed no ill will towards Adams over the lawsuit. Countless true crime shows ripped off the movie, combining interviews with moody re-enactments. While “The Thin Blue Line” didn’t win an Oscar, it did become one of the most critically acclaimed documentaries ever made. I tend to gravitate towards Morris’ quirkier work but “The Thin Blue Line” is clearly an impressive film. [Grade: B+]

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