Netflix UK film review: The Fear of 13
Ivan Radford | On 28, Jan 2016Reading time: 3 mins
Director: David Sington
Cast: Nick Yarris
Watch The Fear of 13 online in the UK: Netflix UK / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
In 1982, Nick Yarris was convicted of the rape and murder of a woman. He maintained that he was innocent. How often have you heard a TV show or film begin like that? In today’s true-crime-obsessed age, tales of wrongly-jailed suspects have become sadly familiar, from Making a Murderer to Serial. The Fear of 13, though, is something entirely unique.
Where Netflix’s docu-series or This American Life’s podcast spelled out their subject’s miscarriage of justice from the beginning, David Sington’s documentary starts at the end – the point at which Yarris petitioned the court, not asking for release, but asking to be executed. It’s a gripping hook and one that draws you in further, thanks to a smartly deployed non-linear structure: we jump back and forth through Nick’s experiences, gradually unfolding the many wrongs done against him.
It’s a clever move from Sington, partly because it allows the non-fiction work to take on a fictional quality: twists and turns can be sprung upon us, while knowledge can be withheld, each step designed to rile you or upset you one degree further. In documentaries such as this, though, that calculated drip-feed is relatively common. What’s striking about The Fear of 13’s winding narration is that it all comes from Yarris himself.
Nick talks us through his stint in solitary confinement, his fight against dodgy evidence, his dealing with facing the death sentence. It’s a horrific tale of misfortune, but it’s made even more moving by the fact that we hear it from the horse’s mouth. There’s no overt artifice or stirring score to tell you how to feel; just a guy against a black wall talking.
It’s a device that brings to mind Man on Wire, James Marsh’s account of Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the Twin Towers. Both films convey the jaw-dropping nature of reality with no footage or photographs of the main events in question. Rather, they rely upon the charismatic nature of their subjects to keep an audience engaged. Here, the result is a monologue that will have you riveted for 90 minutes. Illustrated with elegant cutaways, anecdotal diversions, such as an account of another inmate singing, or the explanation of the film’s title, prove as heartbreaking as they are spellbinding; the editing manages the almost impossible task of keeping the descriptions concise, without ever disrupting their flow.
As Yarris continues his earnest, colourful, dramatic speech, we hear that he liked to read behind bars; an autodidact with a taste for literature, he learned what made a good tale from all the classic authors. He puts that lesson to striking use. A perfect double-bill with Making a Murderer or Serial, The Fear of 13 is an excellent examination of the US justice system, but it’s an even more striking exploration of a man’s ability to take control of his own life’s narrative; utterly unique compared to the rest of the true-crime pack, this is the act of storytelling distilled into its simplest, and more powerful, form.
The Fear of 13 is now available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.