Good documentaries don't need to be overflowing with stylish embellishments or slick editing, especially when they cover subject matter raw enough that it can get the blood boiling on its own merits. Taking the shocking and upsetting Paradise Lost series as inspiration, the documentary Reckless Indifference (exclusively available from online rental service Netflix) details a 1995 murder in California and the blatantly unfair trial that followed. While director William Gazecki obviously didn't have the budget that HBO afforded Paradise Lost and didn't cover the trial while it occurred, he does use the resources available to him (video and audio tapes of interviews with the accused, courtroom footage, and original interviews with many of the family and community members) to craft a very engaging portrait of this complete breakdown of justice.
Like the events of Paradise Lost, the events that caused the film to be made were tragic: Five teens from an upper-middle class Los Angeles suburb spent the day cruising around, drinking and causing minor mayhem. At one point they paid a visit to a local drug dealing teen to either buy or steal some marijuana. In the darkness of the dealer's dingy backyard clubhouse a scuffle broke out that left the dealer stabbed and his friend dead.
In the aftermath of the killing the two "victims" were lionized as saintly kids while the other five were portrayed as vicious criminals and even as an organized gang, when in reality it seems more like all seven kids were exactly the same sort of lost soul teens that suburban America is cooking up these days.
The major departure point here from the Paradise Lost situation is that while both the adolescent victims and the "West Memphis Three" in that notorious (and ongoing) miscarriage of justice were absolutely innocent, the Reckless Indifference crew is a murky mix of kids whose behavior and attitudes were all pretty debased. Even the accused kids' supporters suggest that some punishment was definitely in order, regardless of the truth of the situation.
The problem here, however, is the outsized response of the District Attorney. Spurred on by the LAPD officer father of the slain teen, the local prosecutor used (or misused, according to interviewee Alan Dershowitz) the felony/murder principle to throw the book at all five teens. What this usually means is that if you commit a killing in course of executing a severe felony, even if the killing is accidental (i.e. you kill the wrong person) then you are eligible for first degree murder, regardless of other circumstances.
In this case the prosecutor's thirst for blood (heightened, according to some of the interviewees, by the recent Menendez and Simpson travesties in neighboring LA) led to first degree murder charges for all five teens, only one of whom had the knife, and even that one might have acted in self-defense since the entire set of circumstances are so incredibly blurry. All this despite the fact that the felony part of felony/murder is the supposed "robbery," something that may or may not have even happened.
To make matters worse, most of the kids were unaware of where they even were or why they were there since they rode in the back of the pickup truck on the way over. At least one may not have even ENTERED the clubhouse when the fight was going on. And yet, first degree murder, with life-without-parole as the sentance, was the charge.
Coupled with the prosecutor's insistence of calling the group a gang ("Gang" is such a loaded word in the general Los Angeles area and he seems to be going by some out-of-context dictionary definition of "gang" as any group of people who know each other) and his willingness to withhold information from the defense, this is a railroad from day one. Interviews with Brandon Hein, one of the kids who likely did nothing more than rush to the defense of his friends when he saw them fighting, show a kid who has no idea how he ended up where he did.
Despite the filmmaker's outrage at the heavy-handed use of the judicial system, Gazecki does a very good job of exploring the full issue. He never portrays the accused kids as angels and he allows the parents of the deceased lots of screen time to express their anguish and pain at losing their son. The kid's mother is clearly very distraught and his father, despite his LAPD status and mysterious connection to the prosecution, clearly burns with anger and frustration over what happened. There are no simple villains or heroes here, just a lot of flawed, hurting individuals.
The full frame video presentation is fine, if nothing special. Original material was shot on reasonable equipment (the film is from 2000) and courtroom and other archival material is grainy.
The Dolby stereo soundtrack is clear but not special. Following in its influence from Paradise Lost the score seems to mimic the sounds of Metallica's "Welcome Home (Sanitarium)", the song used to such powerful effect in that earlier documentary. The music here is not nearly as good.
The voices are generally clear, although the film includes permanent subtitles for some archival footage and audio recordings.
Nothing. Really a shame since updates would have been useful.
Reckless Indifference follows many of the conventions of the (in)justice documentary genre, but it does so with a clean style and passionate delivery. It is engaging from beginning to end and, whatever your own feelings turn out to be, offers a lot to think about. It raises questions about the criminal justice system whose answers can have devastating consequences. Although the DVD is a Netflix exclusive it will hopefully find a wide audience of thoughtful viewers.