The problem with re-litigating a highly publicized murder case without new evidence or a new angle is that there’s not much to show except the documentarian’s own interest. Like any true crime story aimed at armchair investigators, and one that literally has “error” in its name, A Wilderness of Error invites us to come to our own verdicts on the case and on the merits of the production itself. While the case surrounding Jeffrey MacDonald—an Army doctor convicted of murdering his pregnant wife Dorothy and two young daughters back in 1970—was a fascinating sideshow, the FX and Blumhouse Television-produced docuseries’ depiction of its density is too scattered and willfully obtuse to wow true crime fans.
Adapted from a book of the same name by author/filmmaker Errol Morris, A Wilderness of Error is less single-minded in its storytelling, but still a muddled and guilty party to the narrative-constructing aspect of the justice system which it aims to critique. Director Marc Smerling (The Jinx) takes Morris’ deep-dive and re-investigates, but isn’t finding any Durst-level bombshells here. Instead, the five-part series looks at the two narratives vying for control of the case—that MacDonald’s testimony is true, that a Manson-esque random group of hippies came into his home and killed his family, or that MacDonald committed the murders and tried to cover it up with a story ripped from the headlines of an issue of Esquire found in his living room—and scatters their facts, lies, and rebuttals into a dramatic collage.
The physical evidence points solely to MacDonald, but a local woman named Helena Stoeckley had (at different points over the decades that the case dominated the media circuit) claimed and recanted that she was actually there and involved that night. Stoeckley has been candid about her drug use and the impact it had on her memory, and while Morris’ book favors MacDonald as innocent, the author reads a passage during the series that bolsters the argument that Stoeckley was manipulated by law enforcement from the beginning.
While Stoeckley is the key to the entire series, as her involvement is seemingly the point its source author and its director disagree on, it doesn’t blaze through the established facts and dig into her contradictions. Instead it teases and wheedles, saving its most pertinent information until its final minutes. This is where the series is most compelling: when the main characters aren’t MacDonald and Stoeckley, but Morris and Smerling, it becomes a duel of closing statements. Two lawyers, armed with the same evidence, duking it out after ten paces. Retelling the actual court decisions (the Army cleared MacDonald; the civilians convicted him and denied his appeals) has a certain Wikipedia appeal, but it’s stretched thin.
Smerling does uncover some new material in making the documentary, though none of it proves particularly substantial. Rather, it’s more color in a case made famous for its colorfulness. The vivid, scintillating scandal attracted attention-seekers like hummingbirds to hollyhocks. Lying law officials, morally-compromised journalists, and a documentarian-turned-author all wanted to be a definitive part of the MacDonald story. That magnetizing quality also seemingly drew in people like Stoeckley and, at some point, MacDonald himself. Soon after his initial Army exoneration, MacDonald went full Gone Girl and, joking with self-centered charm in full force, appeared on The Dick Cavett Show. It’s harrowing.
More often, though, Smerling lacks emotionally crushing media to embed and attempts to create his own, hammering key talking head quotes and reenactment shots over and over. The sheer longevity of the case necessitates something greater than a standalone film, but Smerling still finds time to drag, rehash, and savor the unsavory.
This macabre repetition of decade-spanning rubbernecking is partially because, when it comes to the facts, there’s only so much to go on. The physical case is built well: competent visual storytelling unpacks the evidentiary minutiae, using classic, faceless reenactments focused on set layout. Bodies move through space as threads tying the theoretical play-acting to the limited, yet photographically-supported reality. A gloved hand paints “Pig” on the wall in blood. Some seriously fucked-up stuff gets more fucked-up when seen rather than described—prosecutor Jim Blackburn apparently squirmed around in an evidence room on a bloody sheet while wearing MacDonald’s stabbed-through pajama top.
Horrifying as the images may be, they’re far outnumbered by the conflicting statements. The hard part is that the key players are almost all dead. That means not only is there a lot of hearsay being pushed against the physical evidence, but second or even thirdhand hearsay. The array of witnesses span the gamut from useless to essential, with many more towards the former end. A “true crime fan” notes that, in the years between the original trial and an appeal, MacDonald had aged while archival footage of MacDonald from both eras illustrates the point just fine by itself. The docuseries struggles with its own medium as it sacrifices its story for its form.
Meticulous about the evidence and thematically interested in the cultural narratives surrounding the case (the opening credits sequence involves a multi-faced octopus of television screens and tangled cable tentacles), Smerling and team are still part of the problem. His seesawing direction contrives a semi-sequential story from Morris’ commentary, archival media, hit-and-miss interviews, and heaping helpings of dramatic ignorance. Fake theories, stories, and testimony aren’t immediately refuted, but milked until dry. Rather than analyzing why the glut of falsity exists, the series’ desire for meaty cliffhangers and narrative arcs puts its own Fatal Vision spin on the subject.
Morris’ own relationship to the story is minimized until the finale. It relates his pursuit of the truth with the exoneration of Randall Dale Adams, in which Morris’ film The Thin Blue Line was instrumental. “I never was a reliable narrator!” Morris smiles. “I’m not immune. I’m as fucked-up as the next guy, take my word for it.” That’s definitely true, because he opens the series by remembering a Christmas trip he and his wife took to the MacDonald crime scene. A true romantic, that Morris. His visible glee is a manifestation of the obsession that overtook MacDonald’s stepfather-in-law (who also spent a Christmas poring over the case), Fatal Vision author Joe McGinniss, much of America, and me (just look how long this review is!)—a link A Wilderness of Error doesn’t seem that interested in.
A Wilderness of Error is a bit more entertaining than browsing the relevant Wiki articles, but it’s a hell of a lot longer and ultimately less satisfying because, unlike that gathering of information, it sacrifices clarity for drama. The facts are plenty dramatic on their own and the inferences the case asks us to draw aren’t complex nor dense enough a wilderness to warrant a mental machete. As Smerling and Morris pontificate about the justice system and being convicted in the court of public opinion when a case’s story is stronger than its evidence, they’re just weaving one more layer for us to navigate as we try to come to our own conclusions.
A Wilderness of Error premieres Friday, September 25th on FX with two back-to-back episodes. It will also be available to stream the next day on Hulu.
Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.
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