Director: Errol Morris
How is it that we live in a world where Errol Morris can release a documentary and nobody bats an eye? With a catalogue that spans from documenting the funeral proceedings of house pets to almost singlehandedly inventing the true crime format, Morris is not just a critical darling, but somewhat of a cinematic icon. There aren’t all too many narrative fiction filmmakers around anymore that can stake a claim to really inventing something, which is why we ought to run straight to our Netflix queue when a film like WORMWOOD becomes the streaming service’s latest acquisition.
Back when THE THIN BLUE LINE ushered in the wave of prestige true crime documentaries, attempting to exonerate falsely accused criminals, it seemed like Morris found a fun journalistic oddity. But in recent years, the weight of this genre has made its presence felt. There’s no need to namedrop THE JINX, MAKING A MURDERER, PARADISE LOST, or—dare I say it—SERIAL; at this point these names are synonymous to the genre. Which is exactly why it’s so interesting to see Morris return to the creature he helped birth, utilizing Netflix’s passion for binge-watching to green-light a five-hour opus, the longest film in Morris’s 30-year career.
1950s S A D B O Y
In 1953, an Army scientist by the name of Frank Olson took a fatal plunge from his hotel window. Roughly 20 years later, a news report begs the question as to whether or not Olson’s death was a suicide, a murder, or the unfortunate result of a devious government experiment. Fusing Morris’s legendary interview style with the macabre, confounding identity of Frank Olson’s son, Eric—a man who has seemingly never recovered from his father’s mysterious disappearance—WORMWOOD becomes a dissertation on the opacity of truth, a query into how far we will go to put our mind at ease, and whether we can let sleeping dogs lie at all.
But if you know a thing or two about auteur theory, then you’ve certainly come across the concept that cinematic icons love to tackle a hot genre in their own, unique way. So naturally, leave it to Morris to cultivate something completely out of the ordinary. You see, WORMWOOD isn’t so much a true crime story as it is a psychological consultation. It posits questions that go far beyond the blunt realities of the genre it’s emulating. WORMWOOD isn’t concerned with the subjects of guilt, nor does it care to seek justice. All of this is secondary to a far more essential question: What does uncertainty do to one’s psyche?
It’s Morris tipping his hat to himself, no longer seeking to absolve men of guilt or charge others with murder, but far more interested in the wear and tear endured by those a murder victim leaves behind. That is to say, yes, the experience gets admittedly indulgent, with the film registering as a project that could really hit hard if it were trimmed to a lean, mean, 120 minutes, but there is something to be said in favor of its whopping 256 minutes. By the time WORMWOOD reaches its melancholy climax and audiences have viewed Frank Olson fall to his death in suicide, murder, and a state of unconsciousness, our mind is reeling not unlike that of Eric’s: in a perpetual daze, dissatisfied and hesitant to move on.
A documentary made of footage from a scrapped R.E.M. music video
Incorporating some of Morris’s most breathtaking re-enactment footage to date (starring the likes of Peter Sarsgaard, Bob Balaban, and Scott Shepherd no less), WORMWOOD can sit comfortably as his most aesthetically pristine picture, and the brilliant, intermittent use of collage work not only gives the viewer a palpable insight into the mind of its subject, but hauntingly captures the incendiary skepticism that boils in one’s head once the facts have been eroded and reality feels like a distant memory. As such, much of WORMWOOD does read like THE THIN BLUE LINE modified for a generation of viewers far more forgiving of the documentary format.
With the growing appreciation of documentaries as a storytelling medium, Morris isn’t afraid to get a little weird, framing WORMWOOD in a curious trinity built off of his aforementioned true crime classic, the aesthetic appeal of TABLOID, and the psychological peculiarity of GATES OF HEAVEN. So, yes, it’s a no-brainer that a new Errol Morris film should always be cause for celebration. Few documentarians understand how to press their subjects the way he does. WORMWOOD feels like a welcome entry into an oeuvre that has been searching for a seat beside the likes of THE JINX.