It’s the eternal battle for any fan of true crime: What is our motivation for being attracted to the genre in the first place? We want to think of the victims and their families first, and we are horrified by the crimes committed against them, but in many ways, it is human nature to spend more mental and emotional energy trying to figure out the madmen behind the crimes. Movies like the controversial Sundance documentary On the Record have tried to reverse this instinct, to put the focus on the victims rather than the perpetrators, but human nature is human nature. We always want to know why.
One of the stranger things about Netflix’s documentary series The Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez is that it is so obsessed with that question of why that it forgets to focus on the victims at all. It feels less like a definitive theory of the case than a series of postulates and speculations thrown at the viewer in a rush, leading to a sense that it’s a bunch of gossipy rubberneckers lobbing guesses at each other. Why did Aaron Hernandez, an All-Pro NFL tight end with seemingly everything going for him, kill his friend Odin Lloyd and (maybe) two random clubgoers in Boston? He had a bad dad! His dad died too young! His mother was aloof! He had an unhealthy relationship with his cousin! He had CTE! He was lonely! He smoked too much weed! He was gay! The series doesn’t know any better than you do, and it certainly doesn’t know any better than the stacks of terrific reporting on the story that already exist. But why should that stop us from taking a few stabs at it? The Killer Inside feels like a title in search of a story.
Part of the problem is that this isn’t really a traditional true-crime story. After all, Hernandez was a notoriously terrible criminal: He committed crimes impulsively and sloppily, he left circumstantial evidence everywhere. He showed up in surveillance footage right before his crimes, and he didn’t do anything right as a criminal mastermind other than get rid of the murder weapon. (And his fiancée did that.) There is no real mystery here. Hernandez essentially left a series of signs that said, “HERE IS A CLUE, MAKE SURE TO PICK IT UP” and “HERE IS ANOTHER ONE, DON’T MISS THIS ONE EITHER” at all his crime scenes. So the documentary simply speculates about Hernandez’s state of mind. He becomes an elusive figure whose motivations the filmmakers can’t quite crack.
Because of that, The Killer Inside veers very much toward the irresponsible. It can’t decide whether Hernandez’s father was too abusive or too distant, and then it decides the real problem was that his father died too young. Each theory makes a little sense, but the series flies past them so quickly you don’t have time to think about their deeper significance. Hernandez’s relationship with his mother certainly seems fraught — he has a big argument with her from his jail cell — but one proposed theory also seems to blame her for partnering up too quickly after her husband’s death, as if that somehow could provide motivation for Hernandez. (The epidemic of sons murdering people after their parents married too soon after losing their spouse may have stopped with Hamlet.)
The series is on its most perilous terrain when it delves into Hernandez’s sexuality: An old football teammate claims they had a secret sexual relationship back in high school, which would be complicated and confusing for anyone but perhaps downright paralyzing for a superstar athlete in the hypermasculine world of football. But rather than let this be part of the kaleidoscope that is the human psyche, the series, quite recklessly, floats the theory that sexual repression may have been part of the reason Hernandez was lashing out at the world through violence, and maybe even a reason he killed. There is zero evidence of this — all the series has is the teammate saying he had a relationship with Hernandez, and a gay former NFL player who says hiding his sexuality caused him intense emotional stress — but The Killer Inside runs with it anyway. There is no doubt that being a closeted gay athlete in professional sports is difficult; there are many, many former athletes who testify to that fact. But as a reason that Aaron Hernandez was a murderer? The series tosses out so many possible explanations for his crimes that it never pauses to consider that it’s hurting its own argument. It’s actually hurting a lot more than just that.
But it’s still all about that guesswork. There are cursory nods at Odin Lloyd and the Boston victims, as well as brief sketches of their histories, particularly Lloyd’s, who was an accomplished semipro football player. Even his story is washed away by his connection to Hernandez, a sign of Hernandez’s recklessness that he would be so out of control that he would murder the boyfriend of his fiancée’s sister. (The two women were so close that they comforted each other in Hernandez’s home after learning of Lloyd’s death.) Lloyd isn’t treated as a victim; he’s a symptom.
Ultimately, the series lands on football itself being a reason for Hernandez’s crimes. It’s worth considering Hernandez the player. As a player, he was … well, he was basically Rob Gronkowski. The former Patriots tight end turned TV personality, who retired before last season, was initially Hernandez’s partner on the New England Patriots, part of coach Bill Belichick’s innovation of putting tight ends on both sides of the line of scrimmage and letting Tom Brady spread passes among them. The players were mirror images of each other: big, loud, fast enough to get down the field but large enough to knock over anyone who stood in their way. Hernandez and Gronkowski’s similarity as players was precisely what made them both so unstoppable: They didn’t think, they just caught the ball and then smashed people. This lunkheadedness has become part of Gronk’s undeniable appeal, both on the field and off. Of course, Gronkowski, perhaps because of his off-field ventures and their profitability, had the good sense to leave football before his brain betrayed him; when he retired, he estimated that he’d had “nearly 20 concussions” in his career. Hernandez never made it that far. But the players were the same: willing to run through a wall, and therefore, incredibly valuable.
That’s why the CTE explanation, which certainly seems the most plausible theory in The Killer Inside, is a clean landing point. The documentary decides to pivot in that direction, becoming an anti-football advocacy message over its last half hour, but by then, we’ve been jerked in so many directions that this final pivot can’t hit home. If it was CTE, then why did we spend 20 minutes talking about his mom, or half an hour blaming his dad, or just spouting off about how he was a repressed gay man and that’s maybe why he did it? Aaron Hernandez was not a complicated man; considering the depths of his sociopathy, the surprise isn’t that he was a football player who killed people, it’s that he could ever get his sociopathy and narcissism in check enough to play football in the first place. Maybe it was the CTE. Maybe it was something else. But The Killer Inside is too busy leaping to every conclusion to slow down and give us any insight on any of it. It asks us to think about the killer more than his victims, but maybe there never was all that much to say in the first place.