Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez
2020, Netflix, 3 episodes, 202 minutes
In the moments before I began viewing Netflix’s three-part docu-series, Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, my behavior was likely similar to that of millions of other people, in that I sussed out reaction to the program online.
Something trends on a platform like Twitter, we tap the screen, we evaluate the gist, and I, personally, frequently feel unsettled, the early reaction to this program being a case in point. I read breathless reports from those who had stayed up late, hitting the refresh button continuously on their devices, so they could get their fix about what motivated a murderer—one living a double life, no less—as quickly as possible when the series dropped. “You need to watch this at night, the daytime does not set the right mood,” advised these most enthusiastic viewers—a tip we might have once reserved for a Bela Lugosi flick or a slasher movie.
We live in a world where our consumption habits so often center on what others are also experiencing. We go where what is trending takes us, which has less to do with what we, left on our own, might find most rewarding and edifying. Simultaneously we all sing a frenzied torch song of individuality, even as we shed identity, morphing into a larger, formless whole. In the internet age, that is, many of us lead double lives ourselves—with one persona we attempt to pass off as real to the world, and another that represents who we actually are in our personal lives.
Aaron Hernandez—star NFL player by day, closeted murderer by night—carried this logic to its brutal extremes. But to see Killer Inside as just another film about a uniquely vicious individual is to ignore what makes it truly unsettling. In showing how Hernandez could get away with his double life for so long, while others looked the other way, Killer Inside is less a portrait of a monster than a study of the human capacity for self-deception and moral passivity.
As a New Englander and die-hard Patriots fan, I watched the entirety of Aaron Hernandez’s career up close. As a player, he was mercurial, and defenses struggled to mitigate his versatility. He could line up as a tight end, his natural position, or as a slot receiver—he was perhaps the game’s ultimate hybrid player. He hailed from Connecticut, which is unusual for a player of his caliber, and, according to the documentary, a bad thing for Hernandez in that his eventual return to New England following his college career at the University of Florida meant he was more likely to fall prey to various hometown hangers-on.
Director Geno McDermott builds his film—which is what the three parts essentially comprise—via a collage approach, as is standard with the documentary style. Establishing shots—outside, for instance, Foxborough’s Gillette Stadium or Hernandez’s nearby McMansion—are intercut with game footage, grainy high school highlight reel tape, and court footage, with cutaways to interviews with beat writers, legal experts, and Hernandez’s ex-teammates, including his high school quarterback with whom he had a sexual relationship. But the real driver of the film is its sound—most notably the phone tapes McDermott managed to get access to in which Hernandez speaks to his mother, his fiancée, his toddler, an aunt dying of breast cancer who went to jail over her refusal to give up information on her nephew, even his personal assistant and his marketing guy. (The jokes with said marketing guy will make your stomach crawl.)
As for the criminal aspect of Hernandez’s double life, it was simple enough: His temper was such that, feeling he’d been disrespected, no matter the trifle—a spilled drink, in one instance—he’d lash out with violence. He empties bullets into a car while in Florida, executes semi-pro Boston native Odin Lloyd not far from his home, and seems perpetually on the edge of explosion when imagining a slight. It was the Lloyd murder for which he was convicted and jailed. But what is fascinating about many of the phone calls is how mild-mannered, soft-spoken, and sensitive Hernandez comes across. He doesn’t sound like a mastermind who can dupe people when need be; he’s not a conman, though the results are the same (and bloodier). He sounds all too human: clearly hurt when he talks to his estranged mother, wrenched into pieces when his fiancée hangs up on him because she cannot deal with what her own life has become.
Anyone watching the film will wonder why she stuck with him, all the more so considering that her sister was dating Lloyd (which sounds like a plot detail out of an opera). The heart wants what the heart wants, naturally, and a cynic will also cite money. But this is undoubtedly an articulate, intelligent woman. There may be a streak of Lady Macbeth in her, but we are never really sure. In fact, we are not sure, from moment to moment, that these are bad people, including Hernandez, until we remind ourselves, “Right, he killed people,” and “She had no problem standing by a killer.”
To what degree are we this way? To a pronounced one, I would say. We retrograde morally through passivity, by what we go along with. Under cover of darkness, as if cocooned in a protective world, the conscience part of Hernandez’s brain seems to have vacated its living quarters within Hernandez the man. It’s as though Hernandez had a burner account of a life to go along with his regular, standard-issue one.
Themes meant to double as an indictment of an age are legion in productions of this scope, and what we are to understand here is that Hernandez was a marionette of machismo. Societal expectations of masculinity precluded him from being true to his natural sexual self, while the NFL’s Satanic pact with the business of violence helped to make him a monster. In other words, the film nails societal truths, in one way, but not the way it purports to, because the theme it in fact arrives at is the subsuming theme of our age: the pandemic of shirking culpability.
As an elite physical talent, there was not a team in America that would have renounced the football services of Aaron Hernandez because of his alleged homosexuality or proclivity to violence. The culture of football among teammates is akin to a band of brothers; if you can play, if you can help the greater good, you are welcomed into the fold. This is the same reason that Hernandez, despite enough red flags to send a small community of bulls charging, was afforded his various opportunities, first in college, then the pros. The film argues that the NFL has the appeal it does because of our collective love of violence, but this is hogwash; even with our souped-up, high-def picture resolutions on our giant TVs, violence in football is rarely discernible to the naked eye on television. Violence, rather, is internalized, in the form of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which hardened various lobes of Hernandez’s brain, as we learn near the end of the series. (Helmet-to-helmet hits have since been legislated out of the league, and now happen accidentally more often than not.)
People love the NFL not because of violence, but because in a society where so much happens for the wrong reasons that have nothing to do with reality, ability, or justice, the NFL is a meritocracy.
If you are good enough, you’ll have your shot, you won’t be buried as a third-stringer, you won’t fail to make a team, you won’t fail to earn your millions. Meritocracies create surprises, because they are the true free market system, in which the best among us get to reap our rewards; this makes success feel attainable, which ups competition, effort, and the time invested in becoming the best. Many of us wish our lives were centered around notions of merit, and even those who do not recognize how interesting a merit-based competition can be. Thus, the NFL is a form of escapism.
And we are drawn to productions like Killer Inside because we want to see how someone else pulls off their version—their more dramatically extreme version—of the double life. What techniques do they use? How do they fool people? And, perhaps more crucially, “Is there a way out?” The filmmakers don’t need to do anything more to humanize Hernandez than to show him having quiet, human moments familiar to everyone. He misses his family in prison, he craves physical intimacy. Not much is made of prison lovers, which is surprising, given our cultural predilection for the garish. By the time Hernandez is in prison, we know all about his sexuality, but that isn’t the point. The point is the fear of being who one really is. Many of us know that fear, and it need have nothing to do with sexual preference.
There is a moment in the film when Patriots owner Robert Kraft testifies in court. The camera catches Hernandez looking over his shoulder a half dozen times, furtively, sheepishly, in the direction of the door through which Kraft will be entering. Hernandez put a man on his knees and executed him (not to mention another victim he shot in the head, who survived), but there is something recognizably human in those looks.
They are the looks of conscience, the same looks I imagine an internet troll would have upon his or her face after being confronted with their behavior. Those suggestions to watch this film at night make a fair amount of sense, but not because Hernandez is a character straight out of a horror picture. As people, we trend to the covert, being creatures who lodge a lot of what we are in the shadows, hoping those shadows never experience the beam of a flashlight. This is but another journey into someone else’s darker shadows. Might as well have the right setting for our latest binge, one that this film reminds us isn’t just our home away from home—it’s fast becoming our prime residence.