SIX, a documentary written by Knoxville forensic psychologist Dr. Helen Smith, washes over the viewer with the power of shaped fiction as it traces, via interviews and court footage, the inexorable, “perfect storm” series of baby steps that led straight down a rural Tennessee road to the 1997 murder of a mother, father, young daughter, and the severe wounding of their baby boy, and the conviction of six Kentucky teens for the heinous crimes.
The story echoes with an eerie familiarity of such tragedies as Columbine and In Cold Blood as the weights pile up – piece by piece, error by error, coincidence by coincidence – on the side of tragedy until the counterweights that hold society together are overwhelmed and the unthinkable is revealed as cruel reality.
Technically, the film is sharply edited with high but unobtrusive production values and evocative, atmospheric music (primarily from Mobius Dick), as Smith, director Roman Karpynec, and creative consultant Glenn Reynolds, carefully, calmly, quietly piece together the mosaic of young lives out of step with their peers and the greater society, coming together, as outcasts are wont to do.
From broken homes, untethered by strong parental figures, the two central figures in the drama, depressed, bipolar Natasha Cornett, and depressed, hallucinatory Karen Howell, become fast friends and experiment with rejectionist values in clothing, sexuality, and allegedly, faith, as they dabble in Ouija board soothsaying, blood rituals and other trappings of witchcraft and Satanism.
The impression I gleaned from the interviews with the girls, friends, and family is that this was more general experimentation than an expression of any particular conviction, and a way to bond with fellow outcasts.
One thing leads to another – a reinforcing gang of six, revolving around nucleus Natasha comes together – and the gang heads off on a roadtrip to New Orleans, armed and dangerous. They interact at a rest stop with a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, fresh from a religious gathering, who proselytize to them. Some dystopian conjunction of religious zeal, spiritual trauma, small group dynamics and cackling FATE leads to the theft of the family’s van and their subsequent shooting by the most unhinged of the teens, a boy named Jason. All six in the “gang” were convited of murder and sentenced to life without parole.
Could the violence have been prevented? I am less convinced than Smith, who frames the story thusly on the film’s excellent website:
- This film unravels the chain of events that led to this tragedy; a tragedy that turns out to have been so thoroughly preventable that it is astonishing that it was never prevented. Some missed opportunities include:
Natasha Cornett was committed to the Charter Ridge Behavioral Center in Lexington, Kentucky. Though diagnosed as Bipolar and dangerously disturbed, she was released after eleven days because she had no insurance.
Cornett, and some of the other teens, approached school authorities for help because of bullying and harassment, but were told that they were “freaks” and deserved it.
The parents and friends of several of the teenagers called the Kentucky authorities and the Virginia Highway Patrol with a description of the car the teens were travelling in, and a warning that the teens were armed, and that one was violating parole. Nothing was done. According to the New York Times Research study on rampage killers, it is common for friends, families and others to contact the authorities prior to a murder being carried out, only to be rebuffed by the police.
The teens were pulled over for speeding near Gate City, Virginia by a state trooper who failed to search the car or detain the teens, despite the fact that he thought they were dangerous.
The film explores the roots of the teenagers’ violence, the failure of the authorities and social support systems to address these problems, and the way in which every safeguard failed along the line to the Lillelid’s deaths. It’s not simply a story of teen viciousness, though it is that, but also a story of social safety nets’ collapse–and the way in which “normal” people suffer when troubled teens’ problems aren’t addressed.
In a general sense, of course, all of this is true, but I had the impression that the “trigger man,” Jason, was a violent act waiting to happen, and while this particular tragedy might have been averted had this particular sequence of events been altered – had Napoleon’s horse not thrown a shoe, so to speak – at some point Jason was going to kill or be killed. I’m not sure “the system” can be blamed for his severe pathology.
However, my rather more teleological read of the story is a matter of interpretation and in no way detracts from the binding spell created by this disturbing, profound, superior documentary film, which is available for purchase here. I highly recommend it.
An interesting TV news segment on the film is available here. A trailer for the film will be out next week.