Errol Morris Fought to Clear a Green Beret of Murdering His Family. Was He Wrong?
The new FX docuseries “A Wilderness of Error” examines the famed filmmaker’s case for exonerating Jeffrey MacDonald, who claims drugged-up hippies killed his wife and daughters.
Errol Morris is one of non-fiction cinema’s all-time greats, a godfather of modern true crime thanks to 1988’s The Thin Blue Line, which famously got Randall Dale Adams off of death row. So when he says that another murderer is innocent of the crimes for which he’s been convicted, it’s necessary to listen—if not to instinctively believe him. And yet A Wilderness of Error, FX’s five-part adaptation of Morris’ 2012 book of the same name, makes a far from convincing case, raising plenty of doubt about whether the illustrious filmmaker was, in this instance, on the wrong side of the truth.
Truth, it must be said, isn’t easy to pin down in A Wilderness of Error, and that ambiguity—as well as the mounting tension between Morris’ outlook and that of director Marc Smerling (producer of Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans and The Jinx)—makes the docuseries a particularly involving entry in the popular subgenre. Produced by horror maestro Jason Blum, Smerling’s investigation (premiering Friday, Sept. 25, with an FX on Hulu bow the following day) features Morris as a talking-head guide. It also employs various cinematic techniques that the documentarian has pioneered over the course of the past four decades, in particular evocative, shadowy, slow-motion-drenched dramatic recreations that obscure and confound as much as they enlighten, and interviews conducted with the Interrotron, the Morris-developed system that allows subjects and questioners to see each other, in real-time, in a camera monitor. In many respects, A Wilderness of Error is akin to watching a funhouse-mirror rendition of a Morris film, filtered through a kindred artist’s own lens, with Morris himself at its center.
Then again, there’s a funhouse quality to just about everything in this baffling saga. A Wilderness of Error concerns Jeffrey MacDonald, who as a young Green Beret doctor stationed at North Carolina’s Fort Bragg says he was assaulted in the early morning of Feb. 17, 1970, during a skirmish with four intruders—three men (two white, one African American) and a blonde woman in a floppy hat and boots—who murdered his pregnant wife Colette and daughters Kimberley (age 5) and Kristen (age 2) with a combination of a wooden plank, knife, and ice pick. Suffering only minor stab wounds, MacDonald survived this bloodbath, which he blamed on a band of psychotic hippies who chanted “Acid is great! Kill all the pigs!” while committing their atrocity, and scrawled the word “Pig” in blood on the bedroom headboard. In a country still reeling from the prior year’s Manson Family murders, the MacDonalds appeared to be the victims of a copycat massacre.
From the get-go, however, MacDonald’s account came under scrutiny, not least because there was no physical evidence indicating the presence of intruders, nothing was stolen, there were no signs of forced entry or exit, the house’s state of disarray seemed potentially staged and manipulated, and the location of the deceased’s blood (as well as MacDonald’s) didn’t correspond to his timeline of events. The entire thing seemed downright fishy, and though MacDonald was acquitted during his Article 32 military “trial,” Colette’s stepfather Freddy Kassab soon became certain that the son-in-law he’d initially supported was, in fact, the culprit. Thus, a subsequent inquiry was undertaken by Kassab (with the aid of Peter Kearns and his team), leading to a new trial that concluded with MacDonald receiving three consecutive life sentences for the murder of his wife and children.
MacDonald didn’t quit with this verdict, initiating appeals and, in the process, befriending author Joe McGinniss, who surprised MacDonald by publishing a bestselling book about the entire affair, 1983’s Fatal Vision, which posited MacDonald as a speed-addled psycho killer. A 1984 TV miniseries adaptation starring Karl Malden as Freddy Kassab, Eva Marie Saint as his wife Mildred, and a baby-faced Gary Cole as MacDonald proved a ratings smash, and firmly entrenched his guilt in the public’s eye. Nonetheless, doubt persisted, largely because of the floppy-hatted woman whom MacDonald said he saw in his house on that fateful night—a figure soon identified as Helena Stoeckley, a teenage drug addict working as an informant for local Detective Prince Beasley, who incessantly told others that she had been a participant in the atrocity.
There are a lot of loose ends in A Wilderness of Error, and director Smerling addresses them with resourceful style, recounting his story—and simultaneously commenting on it—through a Morris-like combination of evocative dramatizations, audio recreations of court testimony and phone calls, and archival news reports, photographs and home movies, all of which often play over images of old recording devices or are seen running on cathode-ray sets (including a mangled tower of antiquated TVs). It’s haunting non-fiction expressionism in service of a deeper authenticity, designed to capture the tangled thicket of facts, conjecture and falsehoods that have made the MacDonald case so enduringly intriguing—and, to some people’s minds, unsolvable.
Morris is one of those who believes MacDonald didn’t slaughter his clan, which increasingly puts him at odds with A Wilderness of Error. Smerling thoroughly examines the Stoeckley theory, yet since it largely hinges on the late woman’s reliability—which is all but non-existent—he can’t make it seem the least bit plausible, especially in light of the far more persuasive, evidence-bolstered hypothesis about MacDonald’s own culpability. Consequently, Morris is eventually forced to concede that vital discrepancies between MacDonald and Stoekley’s versions of events mean that one (or both) of them is lying, thereby rendering MacDonald’s claims of innocence deeply untrustworthy.
In that regard, A Wilderness of Error becomes another true-crime tale that’s really about the role of storytelling in criminal investigations and prosecutions. “People take sides. People respond to one narrative or another. We are compelled by narratives. Much more by narratives than evidence,” Morris contends, cheerily confessing that he’s an unreliable narrator, and that, “If you wait long enough, and you involve enough people in telling any story, you’re going to end up with a mess on your hands.” To his credit, Smerling reshapes that chaos into an incisive and intriguing whodunit, all while suggesting—via his subtle but undeniable challenges to Morris’s perspective on the case—that sometimes, the desire for a rousing savior-and-exoneration narrative clouds the vision of even the best non-fiction sleuths.