The Buzz: ‘Wormwood’ Expertly Blurs the Lines Between Fact & Fiction
There isn’t a modern crime series that isn’t in some way indebted to Errol Morris. Be it prestige fare like The Jinx or Making a Murderer, to virtually anything that plays on the ID channel, the filmmaker’s signature fusion of documentary storytelling and fictional recreations-- most famously used in his 1988 film The Thin Blue Line-- has become culturally ubiquitous, to the point where some may question whether or not Morris still has what it takes to stay afloat in a stylistic current that he pioneered.
Morris’ latest venture, Wormwood, lays any such qualms to rest. The six-part miniseries, which is currently available for streaming on Netflix, is a sprawling, at times daunting work that blurs line between fact and fiction like Morris’s past works, while adding a tantalizing, swarming tension that is wholly unparalleled in the medium. In watching it, one gets the sense that the filmmaker hasn’t reinvented the wheel so much as he has refined it for a generation raised on internet conspiracies and urban myths.
Wormwood is, at its essence, a contradictory bit of history about wanting to find the truth without really knowing what the truth is. The subject at hand is Eric Olson (Peter Sarsgaard), a man who spent most of his life trying to uncover his father’s mysterious death. The elder Olson, Frank, was a CIA employee who plummeted from a New York hotel room in 1953. The official ruling was suicide, but rumors surfacing as late as 1975 said otherwise, suggesting that perhaps Frank’s death was part of a top-secret experiment.
Eric is as compelling a protagonist as Morris as ever had at his disposal; a wounded, embittered boy in a brilliant man’s body. He is, in essence, a narrative excuse for the filmmaker to pursue the story with obsessive impunity, as the ties between father and son are always nearby-- a searing emotional welt that unifies all six episodes. While I will refrain from discussing the finer plot points here, I can say that it is rare series that manages to deliver on its overarching narrative (a haven for conspiracy fans) while telling an equally compelling, at times more impactful, story between the lines.
Much of this has to do with Morris’s increased reliance in fictional recreations. While they’ve been a part of his repertoire since the aforementioned Thin Blue Line, Morris has always ascribed to the “less is more” method of recreation, repeating crucial moments or exchanges only when he felt it necessary. Here, however, the artifice between formalism and the fantastical is completely shattered, leaving little trace as to where the real story ends and the “conspiracy” begins. Orson Welles’s 1973 film F for Fake comes to mind, as both revel in a sort of self-awareness that forces the audiences to decipher meaning for themselves. We know that scenes featuring Sarsgaard’s Eric are fictional, but Wormwood encourages us-- nee, dares us-- to take them as reality, to indulge in a truth that we may never really know to be true. In that regard, it is perhaps Morris’s most thematically bold statement yet, especially coming from a man known most notably as a documentarian.
As a visual storyteller, Morris has also continued to sharpen his lurid tools. He wraps his recreations in a kinetic fold of newsreel footage, newspaper headlines, and period photos that blend seamlessly and stylishly. Better still, however, are the instances where Morris outright cuts the frame to black, or blurs the image at a crucial dramatic point to extend the mystery. This may prove irritating to some, but they feel wholly justified within the show’s overall scattered framework-- especially when talk of LSD and its lingering effects enters the picture.
My biggest gripe with Wormwood, and one that deter some from hopping aboard, is it's elongated runtime. At 259 dense minutes, the series feels long, and can occasionally come off as though it's trying to pad it's runtime. There were a handful of moments scattered throughout that felt superfluous, either in their repetition or their emphasis on irrelevant information to the case. One wonders what could have been had it been slimmed down to feature film length, and given a final run through in the editing room.
That said, even Wormwood’s extraneous moments are worth experiencing, whether by virtue of the stellar acting from Skarsgard, Bob Balaban, and Tim Blake, or the bold storytelling angles that Morris takes throughout. It's a series that’s perplexing as it is strangely, unforgettably, rewarding.
All six episodes of Wormwood are currently available for streaming on Netflix.