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Oscar-Nominated Short Film About James Bulger’s Murder Criticized for Ignoring His Family

Ely Solan in Detainment (2018)

With true crime being such a popular genre, only growing in popularity in the last few years due to true crime podcasts, there is so much focus on the history, brutality, and psychology of the killers that people can sometimes forget that we are talking about the deaths of real people—many of whom still have families out there who have to see all this get dragged up again.

Director Vincent Lambe made Detainment, a short film about the murder of James Bulger, a two-year-old who was abducted, tortured, and killed by two ten-year-old boys, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. The details of the case are gruesome and need not be delved into. If you are so inclined to look them up, you can, but suffice it to say we are dealing with the cruel death of a toddler.

Lambe did not reach out to get permission from James Bulger’s parents to make the film, and Bulger’s mother, Denise Fergus, has been very outspoken about her disgust at the filmmaker and has advocated for the film to be removed from Oscar nomination.

Bulger’s father, Ralph, spoke to the Daily Mirror, saying that Lambe had also failed to contact him. “Not once has the maker of this film contacted me or any of James’s family about this film … It has been 26 years since my son was taken and murdered and so I have seen many documentaries and news stories about him. But I have never been so cut up and offended by something that shows so little compassion to James and his family […] I accept this is a murder of such magnitude it will always be written about and featured in the news but to make a film so ­sympathetic to James’s killers is devastating.”

Thompson and Venables became the youngest convicted murderers in modern British history, but due to their age, they were released from jail when they were eighteen years, entering lifelong parole. Venables broke his parole twice, once in 2010 and then in 2017, both times for reportedly having child abuse photos on his computer. Both have new identities.

Lambe says that the movie is based on transcripts from the case and told BBC News that “the film is almost entirely verbatim and there are no embellishments there whatsoever.”

His explanation of why he wanted to make this movie honestly reminds me of the podcasters from the 2019 Halloween movie. Lambe was interested in understanding the psychology of the murderers, rather than maybe exploring the deep psychological damage that was done to Bulger’s family. He told BBC News,

“The popular opinion is that those boys were evil and anybody who gives any alternate opinion or reason as to how it could have happened gets criticized for it, and as a result it stifles debate on the whole issue. I think what they did was evil, but I think there’s a lot more to it. I don’t think you can simply dismiss them as being evil—I think it’s important to try to understand how it happened. The film was made in the interest of understanding why it happened in order to prevent something similar happening again in the future.”

I have not seen Detainment, so I cannot speak to whether it illuminates anything about the deeper psychology of the boys that goes beyond what was already known, but if it is only thirty minutes long, and based on transcripts with no embellishment, it’s hard to see how it could provide much new insight.

Child and teen killers are always treated with a lot of confusion, but the reality is there are a lot of them, from Mary Bell to the Parker–Hulme murder case (which became the film Heavenly Creatures), or the murder of Silje Marie Redergård, who was killed by two boys who were five and six. It’s terrible, but more often than not these young offenders end up being spared life sentences, are granted anonymity because of their age, and have the potential to live normal lives.

Their victims to do not.

Lambe did not have a legal obligation to get permission from the Bulger family, but it should have been a moral obligation. If he wanted to explore the ramifications of charging children as adults, that’s a subject worth looking into. However, let’s not forget that Thompson and Venables are not innocent of the crimes. They killed a two-year-old brutally, and Venables has been found with abusive material towards children on his computer repeatedly. We don’t need to dehumanize criminals, but we also don’t need to spend all of our resources trying to make sense of their actions.

Especially when their victims’ families are alive and still carrying the emotional scars of that loss.

(via BBC News, image: Twelve Media)

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Princess (she/her-bisexual) is a Brooklyn born Megan Fox truther, who loves Sailor Moon, mythology, and diversity within sci-fi/fantasy. Still lives in Brooklyn with her over 500 Pokémon that she has Eevee trained into a mighty army. Team Zutara forever.