On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.
At the beginning of David Sington's documentary The Fear of 13, a title card promises that all of subject Nick Yarris' claims have been independently verified, but it's still hard to believe a lot of the stories he tells about the 20-plus years he spent in prison for a crime he didn't commit. Yarris, a drug addict and small-time car thief, ended up convicted of the rape and murder of a wife and mother of three thanks to a series of poor decisions and unlucky circumstances, and his account of his subsequent time in prison seems equally far-fetched. Although Sington throws in occasional newspaper clippings to support some of Yarris' tales, the focus on Yarris as the movie's only interviewee gives the sense that he's the sole source of information, and his eloquent, engaging speaking style ironically makes a lot of what he says harder to believe.
Even if Yarris has embellished his story, though, the basic facts of it, reported in multiple news outlets, are more than amazing enough to justify this documentary. During his time in prison (primarily on death row), Yarris once escaped for 25 days (before turning himself back in), met and married an anti-death penalty activist, spent years advocating for DNA testing to exonerate himself, contracted diseases from poor prison health care, and eventually requested that his execution be expedited, literally months before that DNA evidence finally proved his innocence and he was set free. Sington films Yarris in a darkened, unspecified location, that at first looks like it could be a prison cell or meeting room (the opening title cards also seem to make it unclear whether Yarris is still in prison, for anyone -- like me -- not already familiar with his story).
This isn't just a 96-minute interview, though -- taking more than a few cues from Errol Morris, Sington uses select re-enactments, sound effects and arty close-ups of everyday objects to illustrate Yarris' accounts, and he structures the movie more like a narrative than a documentary, starting out with one of Yarris' most far-fetched stories (about a prisoner breaking triumphantly into song on a block where silence is strictly enforced) before doubling back at various times to fill in the details of the alleged crime that sent Yarris to death row and, finally, the abuse he suffered as a child that had a formative influence on his turn to drugs and crime. That last one comes off a bit like a cheap twist (and I am not a big fan of documentaries that withhold factual information for the sake of "plot twists"), but overall Sington (and Yarris, presumably) construct the movie very effectively, so that it's both suspenseful and emotionally wrenching, with the right amount of comic relief.
Yarris is a master storyteller, teasing out themes in each of his anecdotes (one of which provides the movie with its title) that make them sound like rehearsed, carefully crafted monologues. And given how much time he spent in prison, devouring hundreds of books, they might well be. Yarris professes his fondness for pulpy crime novels, and he seems to have fashioned himself into a character from an Elmore Leonard book, with a set of unlikely quirks and experiences and a strong, self-aware intellect. By creating such a cinematic, engrossing movie, Sington enables Yarris' self-mythologizing, but given how much the guy went through at the hands of a cruel and indifferent justice system, he can be forgiven a bit of hubris and self-aggrandizement.