When I saw the 2019 Academy Award nominated live action short films, I thought it was a quite strong group of films. All of them held my interest well; all of them were impressively well done. If I had to pick a favorite of the five, I would maybe lean toward Madre from Spain for its taut intensity, but it would be really close. Another serious contender would be Detainment. In fact, if we alter the question slightly and ask which film I thought about the most after the fact, which one’s emotions stayed with me the longest, I’d be inclined to move Detainment into first place, perhaps in part because it’s a true story.

I was interested enough in this story, in fact, that I spent an hour or two reading up on it online after I got home. I vaguely remembered it from back when it happened—in the ’90s—but it’s not a story I had followed at that time, more just something that I saw a couple headlines about, overheard part of a summary of on TV news, etc. Pretty much all the details were new to me.

The case that is the subject of the film is the murder of two year old James Bulger, who was abducted from a shopping mall in the Liverpool, England area and murdered by Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, both 10 years old at the time. Parts of the story are acted out, and parts (including the killing itself and any gruesome details of the story) are conveyed via police interrogations of the boys (separately, with family present).

In the interrogations, the boys go from denying having ever even seen the toddler, to admitting to taking him but insisting they didn’t harm him in any way, to admitting they killed him but each insisting it was really the other who did so.

Thompson comes across as a complete psychopath. You also get at least a hint of a psychological explanation for his role in the shocking crime when, in the context of denying his guilt, he mentions that he has a little brother that age and surely if he wanted to kill a toddler he’d have simply killed him. So it’s entirely possible that he experienced the common resentment and jealousy of the older sibling for the younger sibling whom he perceived as getting all the attention and favoritism as the “baby,” and it triggered such a rage in him that, coupled with his being a psychopath and thus not putting moral inhibitions on his impulses, resulted in murder, albeit redirected toward a different child rather than his brother.

Venables appears to be more of a panicky little kid who got caught up in something that got way out of hand. Whereas Thompson regards his police interrogators with the defiant sneer of a cold-blooded felon, Venables just looks like he’s in over his head as he breaks down repeatedly, crying, blubbering, and desperately hugging his parents or even the cops themselves.

When I read about the case later, in certain respects I got a different impression than I had from the film. Not so much in the sense that the film is inaccurate—which is depressingly routine for virtually any film “based on a true story”—but more in the sense that the film comes from certain specific evidence, mostly the transcripts of the interrogations, and is short enough that it can include only a fraction of that evidence, and so the picture it paints is almost unavoidably going to be at least subtly different from the whole story.

From the film, I got the impression that a lot of what happened was unplanned and impulsive. The boys are shoplifting and engaged in various low-level crimes and hijinks in the mall, and on a lark they grab some kid, not knowing what they even intend to do with him. They take him out of the mall, walk around aimlessly with him for a while, encountering various people along the way and explaining to them that he’s some lost kid they found that they’re taking to the police station. Eventually, perhaps fearing that they’ll get in trouble for having this kid for so long for no plausible reason and wanting to silence him from telling on them, they take him to an isolated area and kill him.

But in reality they confessed that they’d planned before they had ever arrived at the mall to grab a little kid and take him out and throw him into traffic to kill him. Mall security cameras show them watching various kids and following them around, and even trying to grab one before being shooed away by an angry parent.

The film hints that there may have been some significant ill-treatment prior to the murder, that it wasn’t just a “clean” killing, but it’s not specific about it. In fact, they were really brutal in how they tortured and killed the kid, and left his body on train tracks where a train smashed it and sliced it in two.

As far as the nature of the boys themselves and the dynamic between them (by the way, the actors who portray them look just like the photos of them), in broad terms the impression created by the film seems correct: Thompson was a heartless psychopath and Venables was tagging along and letting Thompson influence him to participate in his misdeeds. At least the portrait of Thompson seems correct; I’m not a hundred percent sure on Venables. I still think he was mostly a panicky kid who refrained from doing most of the worst stuff that Thompson did and is more guilty of failing to intervene than of actively participating, but it’s possible he’s just a different style of bullshitter and went a lot farther than he’s willing to admit.

It’s interesting, though, the paths they’ve taken since the crime. Plenty about them is not known, because they were ultimately given new identities in “witness protection program” style, and there remain strict gag orders on reporting about them in the press, but a certain amount of news about them has gotten out, one way or another.

Though they were tried as adults, they were only incarcerated for about eight years before getting out on parole.

Venables throughout his incarceration continued to seem like the one who wasn’t a hardcore criminal, the one who did one terrible thing one time when he was heavily under the influence of a malevolent partner and never showed tendencies in that direction again. Upon his release his likelihood of re-offense was labeled as trivial.

Yet he’s the one who has been in and out of trouble ever since. He has violated his parole by engaging in public brawling and been sent back to prison. In maybe a guilt-based death wish, he has multiple times revealed his true identity to people in his life. He has dated mostly teenagers and people much younger than himself. Most ominously he has violated his parole multiple times by possessing child pornography and images of extreme violence directed toward children, and is in fact currently back in prison for this.

There’s no indication that any time after the crime he has actually acted on his apparent obsession with the violent abuse of children. And his adult behavior isn’t necessarily inconsistent with the hypothesis that he’s not a psychopath like Thompson and directly participated far less than Thompson in the horrific treatment of the Bulger toddler. It’s possible that what we’ve seen in him since isn’t evidence that he was truly evil all along, but evidence that he was greatly damaged by what took place when he was 10.

Thompson, by contrast, has remained out of trouble. He wrote what appears to be (but who knows?) a sincere statement of apology to Bulger’s family upon his release, and reportedly has lived a quiet, law-abiding life ever since in a long term, stable, homosexual relationship. He did evidently reveal his identity to his boyfriend, but unlike Venables he has not blabbed it to others indiscriminately.

It’s possible he’s still the consummate psychopath, but prison is an exceedingly undesirable place, and even a psychopath with zero moral concern for anyone else might refrain from doing things that could land him back in prison, purely from a motive of self-interest. Maybe his being a psychopath has kept him from being wracked with guilt in a way that would fuck up his life like it seems to have fucked up Venables’s. Whereas Venables appears obsessed with what happened and keeps returning to it in one form or another, such as with the violent child pornography, maybe Thompson isn’t troubled by that because, due to his cold-hearted nature, he was never particularly emotionally involved.

Anyway, it’s obviously a wild, truly disturbing story, and Detainment is gripping in how it relates it.

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