On a rainy Friday night in winter 1986, police were called to a home in the town of Ein Karem, just south of Jerusalem. There, they discovered a grisly scene: Nissim Cohen and his wife Leah had been shot dead at point-blank range while lying in their beds, and upstairs, their teenage daughters Anat and Shira had met the same fate. Arriving shortly after this crime had occurred, Jerusalem Police Department youth investigator Avi Samuel quickly ruled out terrorism (because this had been done quietly, and with no connection to a political cause) and burglary (since no valuables had been taken). His hunches were proven correct when word got out that the slaughtered family’s youngest member, a 14-year-old boy, was next door. Moreover, in Samuel’s first interview with him, the boy confessed to the crime, claiming that a green creature had commanded him to kill.
The Motive, Tali Shemesh and Asaf Sudri’s four-part Netflix docuseries (out now), revisits this horrific tale with the hope of understanding the reason behind the massacre. Due to Israeli laws regarding minors, the boy’s identity was never publicly disclosed, and Shemesh and Sudri maintain that anonymity, even as they display numerous photos and film clips of the accused, both as a young kid and as a grown man. What they can’t do, alas, is come up with an answer to their central question, which one can tell immensely frustrates them, especially given that the boy’s lawyer Yossi Arnon says, in new interviews, that the “green creature” story wasn’t true, and that he knows why these murders were committed—and, additionally, that if everyone else knew what he did, they’d agree that the boy was only guilty of manslaughter. Yet despite being repeatedly pressed on camera, he declines to reveal this supposedly exculpatory information.
The fact that Arnon teases the very The Jinx-grade bombshell everyone craves, all while admitting that he’s helped many other murderers sidestep convictions, makes him a distinctly unlikable figure, if not the embodiment of defense-attorney amorality. Arnon’s coy grins and demure evasions make it seem as if he treats this incident—and, by extension, the criminal justice system—as simply a game to be won rather than a serious process whose fundamental concern is achieving justice. Since he won’t prove that the boy had sympathetic reasons to do what he did, one can only assume that such evidence doesn’t actually exist, and thus that Arnon’s comments can be dismissed as merely a bunch of distracting hot air intended to counter the prevailing narrative that the boy did it and, worse still, that he felt absolutely no grief or remorse about his actions.
According to The Motive, the 14-year-old boy had been taught how to use an M16 rifle the week before the murders by his 44-year-old father, who was on leave from reserve military duty. The boy used that very weapon to end the lives of Nissim, Leah, Anat, and Shira, and then quickly hid his bloody clothes in the laundry room and visited his neighbor, where he offered up a story to which he’d subsequently stick: that night in bed, he’d been thinking about the Steve McQueen-Dustin Hoffman jailbreak film Papillon, at which point he heard some church bells and a voice telling him to kill. No matter how many investigators and specialists met with him in the coming weeks and months, the boy held firm to that version of events, and with no signs of domestic discord, personal problems, or any other potential catalysts, everyone simply threw up their hands at the unsolvable mystery.
The Motive chats with police officers, psychologists, teachers, classmates, coworkers and prosecutors in an attempt to get to the bottom of the boy’s murderous motivation, and comes up with nothing other than that he was an extremely intelligent and analytical kid before the crime, and a scarily cold and casually indifferent one afterwards. A stream of shaken and aghast interview subjects discuss the unwavering lack of emotion exhibited by the boy, who never shed a tear, acted upset, or expressed sadness or regret. The portrait forwarded by virtually everyone involved is of a sociopath whose dispassionate monstrousness bordered on the unreal. Amazingly, that’s how the presiding judge eventually felt too, deciding that even though experts had determined the boy was fit to stand trial, something was so clearly mentally wrong with him that the only satisfactory solution was a plea deal that, in the end, netted the killer a paltry nine years behind bars.
The elusiveness of truth is a familiar theme for true-crime docuseries, and it’s ultimately the prime focus of The Motive, along with the abject selfishness of some legal professionals. More frustrating than the absence of a resolution, however, is Shemesh and Sudri’s decision to complement authentic archival material with dramatic recreations that aren’t clearly denoted as such. Ostensibly, some of the home movie footage featured in these four episodes has been staged. Yet by convincingly casting it as non-fiction, the directors blur the line between the real and the phony to a degree that undercuts their enterprise’s reliability. Masking the nature of what they’re presenting, they throw everything’s genuineness into doubt—not a tack that benefits an endeavor aimed at unearthing the truth.
Since The Motive was broadcast in Israel late last year, the now-grown boy’s identity has apparently been divulged on social media, which caused him to lose his job. Shemesh and Sudri’s series, however, concludes its inquiry with an anecdote from his former crush Irit Hacham Shalev, who was surprised to run into him while taking a windsurfing class as part of her university’s sports requirement. Home movie footage of the adult killer enjoying this aquatic pastime is downright spine-chilling, as is Shalev’s memory of the mind-boggling shock she felt upon seeing him in this casual setting. That the boy now lives an anonymous life in his homeland is enough to make one despair about the possibility of attaining justice, which in this instance somehow hinged on a motive that wasn’t—and shouldn’t have been—needed to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.