‘Murder Mountain’: Life and Death in America’s Illicit Marijuana Capital
Netflix’s new documentary series explores the story of a missing person in a county famous for its cannabis with the care it deserves.
Netflix hasn’t had much success with their marijuana related programs in the past. Be it the trope-ridden stoner comedy ‘Disjointed’ or the failed attempt at creating the next great competitive cooking show (‘Cooking on High’). But with ‘Murder Mountain,’ Netflix has turned to a genre they’ve had much more success with—the true crime docuseries. It’s a nice shift away from the tired stereotypes and unwillingness to depict people involved in cannabis culture as the diverse and complex individuals that they are.
‘Murder Mountain’ is ostensibly about the cold case murder of 29-year-old Garret Rodriguez, a likeable Ocean Beach surfer who went missing in early 2013 after moving to Humboldt County to work in the marijuana fields. Garret finds himself in Alderpoint—a place referred to as Murder Mountain by locals (the fact that the series takes its name from the real-life nickname for Alderpoint makes the naming choice only slightly less sensationalistic). Alderpoint is a community at the center of America’s black market cannabis industry whose residents are well-known for their outlaw philosophies.
Garret’s story is not so different from that of many other young people drawn to the region by the promise of quick cash from working for marijuana grow ops. Humboldt has the most missing persons reports of any county in California. Many of them go unsolved. Alderpoint locals say this is because the largely under-resourced Humboldt Sheriff’s Department is apathetic towards their community. Law enforcement, in turn, blames locals for not coming forward when they have information on missing persons. But that’s understandable since most people who live there are involved in the illegal cannabis industry, so approaching police could mean jeopardizing their own livelihood and the ability to provide for their family.
On top of that, when ‘Murder Mountain’ spotlights the Alderpoint residents who do come forward to help find Garret, there is no police action. As a result, the series offers a humanizing look at these folks who live on the edge of American society, sustained by an illicit industry and ever threatened by the illogical and unjust war on drugs.
And while the tragic story of Garret serves to tie the narrative of ‘Murder Mountain’ together, the series expands its reach much further. Most of the episodes divide their focus between three distinct time periods: the area’s hippy origins dating back to the 1970s, the 2013 investigation into the disappearance of Garret, and an exploration of what cannabis legalization has meant for the local marijuana farmers. The series attempts to explore at once both the idyllic beginnings of Humboldt’s marijuana culture and the violent, greed-driven black market that has since taken root. That approach, however, sometimes makes each episode lose focus by trying to grapple with too much and not developing any topic sufficiently.
Scenes throughout the series are regularly framed with sweeping shots of Humboldt’s beautiful geography. Deep plumes of fog spill out of the lush redwood forests, and ocean spray batters the cliffs off the Pacific coast. Closer to the ground, we see something much different. Husks of burnt out cars litter roadsides, while looted and dilapidated buildings reveal the stark reality of the place.
‘Murder Mountain’ may not provide Netflix with the same sort of acclaim they received for ‘Making a Murderer,’ but it is a well-produced and captivating true crime series that gives a rounded and humanizing look at its subjects. ‘Murder Mountain’ is well-paced, and it avoids the common pitfalls of portraying its subjects in a sensationalized or insensitive manner — something both true crime and cannabis-related shows are too often guilty of. On top of that, the series presents the region’s stories in such a way that it encourages viewers to come to their own conclusions—even when it does get lost in its attempts to provide some of the extra context.