As technology continues to permeate the most intimate spaces of our personal lives, it’s becoming ever more common for humanity’s darkest impulses to leak out of our brains and onto our smartphone screens, leaving the law scrambling to catch up. Documentarian Erin Lee Carr specializes in true-crime stories that live in this digital gray area: Her first film, Thought Crimes: The Case Of The Cannibal Cop, explored the intricacies of the case of ex-NYPD officer/hypothetical cannibal Gilberto Valle III. And although her followup Mommy Dead And Dearest hinged on a dramatic case of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, it, too, had a virtual element in the form of a secret online romance. Now, Carr has a new case and a new question to explore in I Love You, Now Die: The Commonwealth Vs. Michelle Carter, a new two-part HBO documentary that asks if it’s possible to murder someone with a text message.
Everyone around Michelle Carter, who was 17 years old when her 18-year-old boyfriend Conrad Roy died by suicide in July 2014, certainly seemed to think so. As was discovered soon after Roy’s death, Carter had been texting Roy multiple times a day in the weeks leading up to his suicide, encouraging—one might even say pushing—him to end his life. Taken out of context, her words are chilling. (Instead of saying “good morning,” she’d ask, “are you going to do it today?,” for example.) Once these disturbing texts became a matter of public record, news media painted Carter as an evil caricature of millennial apathy, a sociopath who manipulated a vulnerable young man into killing himself in order to get sympathy on social media. The state of Massachusetts seemed to agree, putting Carter on trial for involuntary manslaughter in 2017. The reality is much more complicated, a truth that Carr both does and doesn’t unearth in her documentary.
The biggest obstacle to getting the full picture in I Love You, Now Die is that neither Michelle Carter’s family nor Carter herself agreed to participate in the film. And perhaps that’s understandable, given not only the vilification of Carter in the press, but also the fact that she’s currently five months into a 15-month prison sentence. But not having any firsthand accounts from people close to her undoubtedly hurts Carr’s efforts to find out what was really going on in Carter’s mind. Several of Roy’s family members appear on camera, and the severity of his mental illness and their emotional devastation over his death make up a good portion of the first part of the documentary. Carter’s character witnesses, meanwhile, are secondhand: psychiatrists, reporters, her defense attorney Joseph Cataldo, and a handful of classmates who thought she was weird even before all this happened. Thus, as the details of her case and its legal implications are laid out in great detail, Carter herself remains a question mark, a middle-class white girl with a vague resemblance to Cara Delevingne who seemed like a nice person, but could very well have been faking it. Or maybe her ability to tell fantasy from reality was psychotically blurred. Or maybe it was the anti-depressants that made her do it.
To the questions of Carter’s personality and motives, Carr has no real answers. But she does have a clever rejoinder to the knee-jerk assumptions and sexist judgements that appear in most people’s minds when reading Carter’s texts. Carr splashes those texts on screen throughout the first part of I Love You, Now Die—an authentically multimedia touch in a genre that too often plays like a podcast with stock photos attached— and her words don’t get any less shocking with repeat exposure. (“Drink bleach. Just drink bleach,” she texts Roy at one point.) Then, once the image of a soulless suburban black-widow-in-training has been firmly established in the viewer’s mind, Carr pulls way back, giving context to both the relationship and the text messages themselves that calls into question everything we think we know about Michelle Carter. In short, Carr baits the hook in order to show us how easy it is to get caught on it.
This context has been severely under-reported in coverage of the Michelle Carter case, and even those who have followed it since the news first broke may be surprised by the information presented in I Love You, Now Die. Those same followers will also be interested to learn that the documentary makes extensive use of exclusive footage from Carter’s trial, where Carr’s crew were the only camera operators permitted in the courtroom. It’s this journalistic edge that makes up for I Love You, Now Die’s limitations, both as a character study and as a piece of filmmaking. (The cliffhanger/reversal structure, while exceptionally well executed here, is after all quite common in true crime.) And given that the case ultimately came down to a 45-minute phone call whose content only Michelle Carter knows, asking the right questions may be the best we’re ever going to get—unless the Supreme Court decides to hear her case, at least.