Life of Crime: a shocking film about three decades of addiction and incarceration

The often brutal HBO documentary follows 36 years in the life of a trio in New Jersey in the throes of vicious addictions

In 1984, the documentarian Jon Alpert began filming three petty criminals on the streets of Newark, New Jersey. With a camera hidden in his clothing, Alpert captured the twentysomethings’ ingenuity and braggadocio – they mostly targeted retail stores with eager confidence and schemes as brazen as walking out with a box full of goods – as well as the fraying seams of their lives: abusive relationships, arrest warrants, spiraling drug use. Alpert, part of the New York non-profit Downtown Community Television Center (DCTV), released his first installment on the group, One Year in a Life of Crime, in 1989, after all three had been incarcerated for armed robbery or drug offenses.

A follow-up in 1998, Life of Crime 2, caught up with two of the men, Rob and Freddy, fresh out of prison and struggling to stay clean, along with Rob’s ex-girlfriend Deliris, herself incarcerated and dogged by a heroin addiction that led her in and out of jail and prostitution since she was a teenager. By the mid-2000s, over two decades since Alpert first met Rob and Freddy, the film-maker had given up on the project. Both men had succumbed to their addictions, and Alpert assumed Deliris was gone, too. Then he received a phone call from her, still in Newark and by then sober for years. She told him to meet her, and to bring his camera.

The result, in part, is Life of Crime: 1984-2020, an achingly candid and at times brutal documentary for HBO spanning 36 years of crime, incarceration and the compounding ravages of addiction. Despite the title, the two-hour film is less about the crimes themselves than the ebbs and flows of harrowing drug abuse, the ceaseless mental burden of addiction, and the near impossibility of breaking out of a system that, over the course of the 1980s and 90s, incarcerated and stigmatized rather than treated drug addicts.

One Year in a Life of Crime premiered in 1989, the same year as the verité-style reality show Cops, which glorified police aggression and pathologized crime for 32 years as one of America’s longest-running TV shows (Paramount cancelled the program, one of the most influential shows on attitudes toward law enforcement, amid the nationwide protests for racial justice in 2020; Fox News’s nascent streaming network, Fox Nation, announced plans to reboot Cops this September.) Life of Crime, Alpert told the Guardian, was meant as somewhat of a corrective. DCTV was “not interested in following the cops around”, he said, and keen to ask: “Who were the criminals? Why are they doing this? Can we understand them?”

Rob and Freddy, whom Alpert met through a friend of a colleague at the time, were open books, eager, at least in the mid-80s, to demonstrate their ingenuity and particular skillset. “They were very, very creative, they were very, very smart,” Alpert recalled. “I was fascinated by what they were doing and their inventiveness.”

The first two-thirds of the film chronicle Rob, Freddy and eventually Deliris’s journeys from functional lives of petty crime, doing what it takes to make money (“I’m not going to make $150 a week when I could make $150 a day,” Freddy says of his life off the books) to all-consuming vicious cycles of addiction. Alpert maintains astounding access and intimacy throughout, a product both of the trio’s openness and friendships with Alpert that evolved over years of shadowing their hustles – in the back of a car, in the motel room where Deliris prostitutes herself for drugs and money, in the mid-80s kitchen where Rob and Freddy count their bills.

The 80s war on drugs was, as things go in America, never just about drugs; the decades-long effort disproportionately targeted and incarcerated black people, broke up black families and recast longstanding racism equating blackness with “dangerous” in new terms. That context largely goes undiscussed in this film – Rob is white, Freddy and Deliris are Hispanic. They are frequently surrounded by mostly black people both in and out of prison, and in one of his free stints, Rob is reprimanded by a white officer concerned for his safety hanging around in what appears to be a black neighborhood.

‘I’m not going to make $150 a week when I could make $150 a day,’ Freddy says. Photograph: HBO

But the vast majority of the film is hauntingly personal, embedding in Rob, Freddy, and especially Deliris’s cycle through prison, parole officers both cold and caring, recovery, relapse. A handful of moments, particularly those harkening to a legacy of disappointment and trauma that has already played out, off-screen, in our timeline, are simply devastating: the time Freddy’s teenage daughter declares a rare day she has spent with him one of the best of her life; Deliris’s daughter Kiky, witness to so much of her mother’s suffering and abandonment, bargaining with her, at age nine or so, to not leave at night – “we know how much we love you but we don’t know how much you love us”.

Portions of the film are shockingly graphic, even as inured as we are to gore and despair: Freddy injecting a woman in the neck when he can’t find another vein; Deliris picking at her scabs or taking money from a trucker picked up on the street; the coroner opening up a bag to reveal Rob’s decomposed body, discovered days after a fatal overdose following years of intermittent sobriety.

Alpert is resolute on the film’s no-holds-barred approach to depicting the indignities of addiction. “There needs to be a reason for that to be included,” he said of numerous scenes of injections, parental abandonment, prostitution. “Here we are, 36 years into this timeline, and more people are dying from drugs this year than ever before in the history of the United States. We are not paying attention to this problem, and it is slaughtering us.

“As unpleasant as it is and as emotionally wrenching as it is, it’s ‘you’ve got to watch this, and you better watch this,’ because this is what’s happening,” or, I guess, what’s happened.”

Deliris, who found her sober support systems suddenly stalled and unavailable during lockdown. Photograph: HBO

The final section of the film follows Deliris, who after several years in prison in the 90s returns to her children and, after several false starts, remains sober for over a decade. By 2019, she had been clear of heroin for 12 years, received a city award for her service helping others get into addiction treatment, and had a loving relationship with her three kids. Alpert had been in talks with city officials for a celebration, until the pandemic shut down all plans. Like countless Americans, Deliris found her sober support systems suddenly stalled and unavailable during lockdown; on 12 July 2020, after 13 years of sobriety, three days after she last talked to Alpert on the phone, she died of an overdose. Her funeral, and reflections from her adult children, form the final scenes of the film.

“It’s not the closure that I wanted,” Alpert said of the film’s final notes, which were originally supposed to be celebratory, not a devastating reminder of how the shadows of addiction never fully dissipate. There is no narrative redemption, nor consolation for her family. But Alpert hopes, as Deliris kept an eye on legacy both on and off camera, that the film will offer a potent warning.

“This is them, by sharing, giving back to society,” he said of Rob, Freddy and Deliris’s decision to keep filming, year after year, decades apart. “They believed it, and then I believed it, otherwise we wouldn’t make the film.”

  • Life of Crime is now available on HBO with a UK date to be announced


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
‘There’s a lot more to it’: docuseries goes behind the 2017 Weinstein exposé
Catch and Kill: The Podcast Tapes provides visual, striking context to the book and podcast series by journalist Ronan Farrow on the work and legacy behind the Weinstein reports

Adrian Horton

12, Jul, 2021 @5:42 AM

Article image
‘People don’t disappear into thin air’: behind shocking docuseries The Invisible Pilot
The series recounts the 1977 disappearance of an Arkansas family man mired in drug smuggling and international scandal

Adrian Horton

06, Apr, 2022 @6:06 AM

Article image
‘This is a cult’: inside the shocking story of a religious weight-loss group
In a strange new docuseries, the dark world of the Remnant Fellowship and its ‘pray yourself thin’ leader Gwen Shamblin is brought to light

Adrian Horton

29, Sep, 2021 @7:56 PM

Article image
Hack the vote: terrifying film shows how vulnerable US elections are
In the documentary Kill Chain, the weaknesses of America’s basic election infrastructure are laid bare

Adrian Horton

26, Mar, 2020 @1:23 PM

Article image
‘Like a horror film’: revisiting the Fyre-esque disaster of Woodstock 99
A new documentary surveys the mess of Woodstock 1999 – a disaster of poor planning and a microcosm of toxic masculinity, raunch culture and entitlement

Adrian Horton

22, Jul, 2021 @2:47 PM

Article image
‘It was just so fascinating’: behind a film exploring America’s small towns
The HBO documentary Our Towns, based on a magazine project and book, visits six US towns for a portrait of local resilience and regeneration before the pandemic

Adrian Horton

13, Apr, 2021 @7:15 AM

Article image
'They were not born evil': inside a troubling film on why people kill
In Alex Gibney’s documentaryt Crazy, Not Insane, the career of clinical psychiatrist Dr Dorothy Otnow Lewis is explored, from her work with Ted Bundy to Arthur Shawcross

Adrian Horton

17, Nov, 2020 @4:38 PM

Article image
Sandra Bland: behind a poignant documentary of her life and death
In Say Her Name, the tragic death of a woman stopped by police in 2015 is examined with troubling and frustrating results

Jamiles Lartey

03, Dec, 2018 @9:00 AM

Article image
'A defining story of our time': the film-maker giving a face to family separation
In documentary Torn Apart, Ellen Goosenberg Kent tells the story of two mothers, detained from their children, seeking a better life in the US

Adrian Horton

10, Oct, 2019 @6:30 AM

Article image
‘This massive undertaking was invisible’: film glimpses behind the curtain as Covid vaccine was made
Acclaimed film-maker David France’s How to Survive a Pandemic on HBO documents ‘a scientific undertaking unlike any in our lifetime’

Adrian Horton

30, Mar, 2022 @1:52 PM