Serial killer or serial liar? That’s the question at the heart of Netflix’s riveting true crime documentary “The Confession Killer,” about convicted murderer Henry Lee Lucas – an enigmatic figure who was either the world’s worst serial killer or part of the biggest hoax in American criminal justice history.
Over five dramatic episodes, the crazy story of how Lucas confessed to hundreds of murders while facing a double murder charge in Texas is retold in jaw-dropping detail. Indeed, my jaw dropped so many times, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could be forgiven for mistaking me for a member of the White House press team. Shocking twist follows shocking twist in a manner that even a daytime soap might consider a little OTT.
Before I reveal anything else (and this review will contain some historical spoilers about the case, which unfolded over a couple of decades in the 1980s and ’90s), I should start with my own confession: I am not a true crime devotee. I generally prefer my crimes to be investigated by fictional sleuths with tragic backstories, ruinous personal habits and quirky mannerisms. Yet I was completely blown away by the mini-series.
Like with all true crime shows, the less you know about the actual events of “The Confession Killer,” the greater your overall enjoyment will be. In that regard, I was the perfect viewer: When I sat down to devour all five episodes, all I knew about Lucas was that he’d been the cause of 90 of the most unsettling minutes of my life (in a movie theater, at any rate) thanks to John McNaughton’s 1986 film “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” – a nightmarishly bleak thriller “inspired” by the murderous antics of Lucas and his buddy Ottis Toole (think two Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokels from “The Simpsons,” but with fewer brain cells).
Lucas was a self-described drifter who endured a childhood that ticked all of the boxes in the “serial killer psychological profile” the FBI had been working on from the ’70s (a process chronicled in Netflix’s grippingly grim series “Mindhunter”): He grew up dirt-poor in rural Virginia, had a controlling parent (his mom was a prostitute who brought her work home with her; his dad lost both his legs in a railroad accident) and he had a history of frequent childhood visits to emergency rooms. I’m not even going to detail what he did to animals, but let’s just say it didn’t involve making cute videos of them.
The ’80s was in many ways the birth of the serial killer “industry” in America, with the media offering an endless diet of bloody details on the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy et al. Lucas had come along at a unique moment in TV history, with the police only too happy to open their cell doors and grant camera crews and reporters unfettered access to dangerous felons. As one journalist who reported on Lucas said, “It was like he was a movie star everywhere he went.”
And he sure went to a lot of places. Once he started confessing to serious crimes, police departments around the country started getting in line to see if he could help with their unsolved murders. As Lucas’ female jailhouse minister, Clemmie Shroeder, puts it, he felt “like he was doing the work of God” by confessing to the murders.
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There are two remarkable elements to “Confession Killer.” First is the amazing set of characters contained within this sprawling story – obviously, Lucas himself, who comes across as pretty savvy for someone portrayed as of below-average intelligence; the Texas Rangers who formed a task force and worked hand-in-hand with Lucas, pinning crimes on him like he were a corkboard; and the journalists who got up close and personal with him in the ’80s. And then there’s the bombshell arrival of a woman called Phyllis Wilcox…
There are also at least three subplots here that, frankly, I’m amazed Hollywood hasn’t turned into blockbusters: One involves a group of retired lawmen and women who voluntarily run a cold case investigations team; another is the inspirational middle-aged couple who ran their own probe into the death of their daughter after they rejected the flimsy official line that Lucas had killed her. The third is perhaps the craziest of all, involving poisoned pooches, FBI wiretaps, coercion of attorneys and the then-biggest libel award in U.S. history.
The documentary’s second killer element is the vast amount of footage it could access of Lucas at all stages of his incarceration – from the moment he causes uproar in a Texas court by stating during his 1983 murder trial, “Well, judge, what are we going to do about these other 100 women I killed?” to his later years in the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville.
The show has a somewhat surreal edge thanks to its copious use of footage of a Japanese news crew that interviewed Lucas at length about his life and crimes. The killer sits at a table in the police station, relaxed and smiling, as a Japanese journalist tells him he’s now famous in Japan, causing Lucas to respond that he’s killed people there too. (When later asked how he got there, he says “he drove” from America.)
There is also incredible footage that shows Lucas acting like he’s the police chief rather than the chief suspect: He answers phone calls in the investigation room, sips on a giant strawberry milkshake (his favorite drink) or works his way through the latest pack of Pall Mall cigarettes brought to him by officers from other states as they look to clear up their murder cases.
As one Texas Ranger memorably puts it, “Wherever Henry was, the media was there. It was a circus that would not leave town.” And while there are many disturbing images on show here, Lucas’ beaver-esque set of three or four decaying, yellowing teeth deserve their own special mention.
There is a giant irony at the heart of “The Confession Killer,” though: This is a documentary that shows how everyone – from the victims’ families to the legal system itself – is driven by the desire for closure, yet it is unable to provide closure on Henry Lee Lucas himself. He was definitely a killer (he previously served time for murdering his own mother in 1960), but he took all of his secrets to the grave when he passed away in 2001. There are no big reveals at the end, no tidy endings to many of the murder cases.
What the documentary is certain about, though, is that there are people out there – maybe even watching the show – who literally got away with murder, and that there are families out there still desperate for answers about who really killed their loved ones.
“This really is a story about human nature. About how all of us saw in Henry what we wanted to see,” says journalist Nan Cuba, summing up. But it is also a story about guilt – of Lucas himself, of law enforcement officers and elements of the media – about ambition (in a documentary full of memorable quotes, my favorite was “Probably one of the most dangerous places in town was between him and a TV camera”) and how murder rips entire families and communities apart, unable to ever fully heal.
“The Confession Killer,” co-directed by Robert Kenner and Taki Oldham, will leave you amazed, appalled and aggrieved. And, to quote Lucas’ jailhouse minister, you will not always know who’s wearing the white hat and who’s wearing the black one.