The true crime documentary is a magnetic affair for many of us, particularly when murder is involved. We, the upstanding public, are utterly fascinated by people who kill—those unspeakable monsters we shun, yet devote hours of our free time indulging in their heinous work. What each of us finds so enrapturing about the horrific things one human does to another may vary from person to person, but perhaps the thing we all have in common as viewers—not participants—of these things, is that we recognize them as other. It’s not us doing the killing, not us being killed. So we watch, and we marvel at man’s depravity. The true crime docuseries takes it up a notch. It is here where salacious acts of all kinds find a home in the most addictive form.
Netflix hit it big in 2015 with Making a Murderer, a ten-episode thriller of a documentary that would later spawn a second season. Regardless of your opinions on Steven Avery’s guilt or innocence, that series was so brilliantly constructed. Now, four years later, Netflix has given us The Confession Killer. It’s another mystery of homicidal proportions that raises questions—and answers many of them—regarding its subject’s involvement in the crimes covered. This one is the strange saga of Henry Lee Lucas, a man with a limited IQ who, after a 1983 arrest, would go on to confess to hundreds of murders spanning the entire United States. At first glance, and just about every glance thereafter, nothing about Lucas seems consistent with what we might expect from a serial killer—psyche, motivation, disposition, etc. And there is ample footage of this individual. Lucas was, between 1983 and the end of his life, a star. For a time, he was considered the most prolific serial killer in American history. Only, not everything is what it seems in his case.
The crux of this series, directed by Robert Kenner (Food, Inc.) and Taki Oldham (producer, Merchants of Doubt), rests on the plausibility of Lucas’ confessions, and who is really to blame decades later for his alleged multi-year crime spree. If that sounds like an intriguing premise, it is. However, the presentation is a slog. Five episodes could have been condensed to three, each one zeroing in on a different element of the story:
- Lucas’ crimes/confessions
- law enforcement
Since there’s no new information the filmmakers have uncovered, you don’t get the sense that this is an ongoing narrative. They’re simply recalling something that happened decades ago with a few significant updates years later thanks to DNA evidence. But then it stopped. The Henry Lee Lucas tale was over, victims of the families left to stew in anger and confusion in the hopes that the cases of their loved ones will one day be reopened.
Certainly this is the most robust recounting of the Lucas story to date. The filmmakers pored through hours of video—law enforcement, local news, and other obscure television programming—to compile companion visuals to more current interviews with the parties involved back in the 1980s. It’s astounding how much documentation existed then, as Lucas obtained something of a celebrity status clearing cases and assisting Texas Rangers in their mission of purification. Without the accompanying archive videos, the whole series would be a rather dry collection of taking heads. That said, it is quite dry already. A handsomely made series, yes, but one that meanders in redundancy. Even if information is new, it’s still monotonous—Lucas clearing case after case, the doc then calling each into question.
By contrast, what made Making a Murderer so strong was its consistent unfolding and pacing. The story kept progressing, moving toward something. The past sets up the present, and the filmmakers are actors in the drama, treating the viewer to shocking moments a crime novelist might conjure up. It’s persuasive and manipulative, but it’s superb storytelling. There are teases tacked on to the end of the first four Confession Killer episodes, though each amounts to a letdown in the show that proceeds it. You’re not on the edge of your seat, desperate for the next piece of this puzzle, nor are you eager to play another fifty minutes to see where it all goes. It just doesn’t have the makings of a mystery-thriller.
More fascinating than the story itself is the character study of the man at its core. What would drive a man to confess to so many despicable crimes? And, if he didn’t commit them, why would he want to be recognized for such things? There’s conflicting information put forth in the series, because Lucas was a man of much inner conflict. He wants the credit, then he doesn’t. He wants to die, then he wants to live. He did it, he didn’t do it. He feels guilt for his actions, then he doesn’t, because he never committed them in the first place. Is the truth somewhere in the middle of that muddle? Lies prevail in this story—from the chief suspect to those who apprehended him.
If you’ve watched Netflix’s Mindhunter, you’ve probably learned a bit about the tendencies of serial killers. The overlap between that series (a scripted one) and Confession Killer, is fascinating. If only the FBI was on Lucas’ case in 1983, perhaps many families would be spared the heartache they still suffer from. There is, in fact, nothing about the hundreds of murders credited to Lucas that have much in common. We know from Mindhunter, and in the latter episodes of this series, that serial murderers have a particular makeup. They have similar upbringings, rarely kill outside their own race, often kill the same way, and usually connect a sexual component to their efforts. Henry Lee Lucas does not fit the profile. According to his accounts, he killed both men and women, young and old, in dozens of states. He killed using guns, knives, his bare hands, his car—even by crucifixion! He would sometimes have sex with his victims’ corpses, and sometimes he wouldn’t. If this man was telling the truth, he’s the most depraved human being in U.S. history. But how was he able to lead police to the remains in many cases? How was he able to provide precise details of each victim and the location in which the crime took place? You’ll have to watch to find out.
In terms of merely documenting the Lucas tale, Kenner and Oldham do a fantastic job. In addition to the aforementioned archive footage, they pack each episode with a wide range of interviews, from journalists who covered the story at the time, to Texas Rangers and sheriff’s deputies, to the victims’ families. Two of the more interesting voices are former DA Vic Feazell and prison chaplain Clemmie Schroeder. Feazell became a victim himself, in a sense, and is as tied to the Lucas case as any other. His life revolved around it for a time and he still feels the repercussions all these years later. If not for Lucas, Feazell’s life would look entirely different today. And Clemmie, it turns out, may be the reason Lucas became a story in the first place. It’s through her influence that he begins his confession tour—an apparent soul cleansing act that he comes to believe is his duty to God. Clemmie is as integral to the new direction of Lucas’ life as Lucas is to Feazell’s.
The other major player here is Sheriff Jim Boutwell, a man rendered both a hero and a villain as a result of Lucas’ claims. Yes, you can look him up and find everything you need to know, but if you’re ignorant of the story and you’d like to be surprised, I’ll say no more here. The fact is, without Boutwell, Clemmie, and Feazell, the name Henry Lee Lucas may never have been known at all.
Making a Murderer saw impassioned viewers plead for Steven Avery’s release, imploring the system for a new trial and an investigation of the police and the prosecution. Netflix will likely not see another cultural sensation in the Lucas affair. It’s possible—if only slightly—that there could be an update to it, but the sad reality is that this story is probably over. That’s equal parts due to the subject and the structuring of it. Lucas is history, his alleged crimes too broad to do anything about. Dozens and dozens—maybe even hundreds of families are left unsatisfied, still craving justice. How could we possibly meet all their needs?
That is, perhaps, the biggest takeaway from the series. When evil is exhibited, justice is yearned for. And when justice is not attained, suffering reigns. We’re reminded of the importance of it—the importance of law enforcement, and that it does its job responsibly. A dishonest good guy is no better than an honest bad guy, the series reveals. And then there’s the dishonest bad guy—the most confusing and hurtful of them all.
An eyebrow-raising premise amounts to too much information. This is the sort of series that lacked a storyteller’s touch. Though that isn’t a requirement of the documentarian, it makes for more palatable, pop viewing—the kind of stuff that gets people talking. People should be talking about Henry Lee Lucas and the families he victimized with both his words and his actions. Unfortunately for them, The Confession Killer will probably not be enough of a catalyst to make that happen.
The Confession Killer is now streaming on Netflix.