HBO’s ‘I Love You, Now Die’ Documentary Raises Challenging Questions of Whether a Text Can Kill
In this cyber age a text can be as damning as DNA evidence. HBO’s riveting new two-part documentary “I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth v. Michelle Carter” revisits a recent case that encompasses quite a lot of the issues now obsessing American culture. Medicated teenagers trapped in dark fantasies, family troubles hidden behind the façade of suburbia, the melding of real life with social media, all of it swirls at the center of this story. When 18-year-old Conrad Roy decided to take his life in the summer of 2014 his sort of girlfriend Michelle Carter, 17, had a final text exchange with him that would cast her as a cultural villain, while raising serious questions of what complicity means in a changing world.
The documentary opens on that fateful July day as Roy parks his truck near a Kmart in Massachusetts and proceeds to gas himself, all the while texting with Carter. Director Erin Lee Carr presents the conversation in the same way we scroll through our phones: The texts appear one after the other onscreen and we can see Carter prodding Roy, asking if he’s about to do it even as he expresses hesitancy. The teen dies and when detectives search through his phone they find Carter’s texts, proceeding then to arrest her. But what exactly is Carter being charged with? The story hits the press and the idea forms that Carter pushed Roy to commit suicide. Much of the focus centers on Carter telling a friend that Roy had stepped out of the truck and it was she who told him to get back in. In the eyes of Roy’s family and much of the public, this was the moment that sealed the fate of the Conrad Roy. Or did it? As the trial begins two stories emerge of two troubled teenagers descending into their own, respective abysses. Wrecked by depression, isolation and loneliness, how Carter and Roy came to be forever tied together by tragedy raises more questions than answers.
Carr, a superb documentarian who also made the engaging “Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop” and “Mommy Dead and Dearest,” approaches the Michelle Carter with an appropriately broad brush. What begins as a true crime case evolves into a cultural study of a generation defined by its relationship to technology, mixed with a classic obsession with pop culture. The documentary is split into two parts, the first looks at the case from the angle of the prosecution, the second from the angle of the defense. It’s a striking lesson in how perceptions can change. The burning question is if Carter was responsible for Roy’s death by encouraging suicide via text. In essence, can a text message kill? Making the case even more complicated is the fact that never did Carter actually text Roy to get back into the truck in their documented exchanges, the statement was a claim she made later.
As layers fall other layers build in this absorbing yet strange case. Per the prosecution, Carter emerges as an attention-deprived outsider, feeling rejected by her peers and desperate for popularity. She met Roy by chance, beginning a relationship that was untraditional by any old high school standards, but in a way makes sense with how society operates these days. It was all via text. Roy, long suffering from depression and anxiety, left behind reflective video recordings of himself, raging against life’s futilities. Did Carter simply maneuver him towards suicide to then bask in the outpouring of sympathy? At one point she suggested he try using bleach. We hear from classmates who never invited Carter to be a part of their social circles, yet immediately made themselves available when news of Roy’s death spread. Carter did seem to relish the sudden rush of attention, even hosting a fundraiser to raise awareness about mental health…in a spot other than Roy’s own hometown. Her texts from her high school years provide a window into the life of a teenager feeling left out and unappealing. Carr uses courtroom footage to immersive effect, avoiding recreations or too much reliance on footage other than the texts and court testimonials. Roy’s family members give interviews, as well as Carter’s defense attorney Joseph Cataldo (Carter’s own relatives and she herself declined to participate), but Carr builds the narrative on the documentation of the events.
And then the second chapter flips everything around and another portrait of both Carter and Roy emerges. Also beset by depression, Carter was herself on medication. Per the defense with the expert analysis of a psychologist, Carter soon descended into some kind of hallucinatory zone between reality and fantasy, spinning her relationship with Roy in tragic romantic terms typical for teenagers, but enhanced by mental illness. A journalist who covered the case informs us that Carter’s text exchanges with friends and Roy were all colored with references to her favorite show, “Glee,” to the point where she began lifting lines from not just episodes, but from actress Lea Michele’s statements regarding the suicide of partner and co-star Cory Monteith. It is suggested Carter might have been trying to help Roy deal with his own darkness, unintentionally or clumsily finding herself holding his hand across cyberspace towards eventual death. Bottom line, these were messed up kids left to their own devices.
Carr does not turn “I Love You, Now Die” into a parade of easy answers. Beneath all of this evidence and trauma are other themes, including how easy it is to portray women as seducers and manipulators. Had she been a man the media’s spin on the story would have taken another angle, without a doubt. Even the judge’s final verdict feels like it is grappling with how to proceed. Carter is found guilty of reckless behavior that led to manslaughter, but doesn’t actually start serving any time until 2019. In fact, the judge concludes it was the moment Roy stepped out of the truck and Carter told him to get back in that dooms her, yet there’s no actual text evidence.
Challenging to the point where Carr shows us multiple locals arguing with themselves over the meaning of the case, “I Love You, Now Die” has a haunting power. The questions it raises go beyond murder, but how our connection to the technology we use every day is raising wider implications. What and how you text might mean the difference between guilt and innocence, life or death.
“I Love You, Now Die” premieres in two parts on July 9 and 10 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.