‘A Wilderness of Error’ Review: Errol Morris in the Fog of Murder

“A Wilderness of Error” is not, technically, a new Errol Morris documentary. But the five-part FX series (premiering with three episodes on Friday) begins with a clapperboard in front of Morris’s face, and he’s the star of the show, as well as its secondary subject and, perhaps, slightly guilty conscience.

“Wilderness” is based on a book of the same title, published in 2012, in which Morris re-examined the murder case against the one-time Green Beret captain Jeffrey R. MacDonald. In it, he argued persuasively for the possibility of MacDonald’s innocence and said unkind things about both “Fatal Vision,” the true-crime best seller by Joe McGinniss that had made the case notorious, and “The Journalist and the Murderer,” Janet Malcolm’s famous dissection of McGinniss’s methods and motives.

Morris wrote the book after failing to sell the material as a film or television series. The market for true-crime series exploded shortly afterward, but — perhaps because the book had made him a participant in the MacDonald saga — Morris handed over the directing duties on “Wilderness” to Marc Smerling, a producer of “Capturing the Friedmans” and “The Jinx.” Morris serves as an avuncular and at times comic narrator, waving his arms wildly as he tries to explain the fascination criminal trials exert on us.

Smerling’s deference is clear not just in the free rein Morris is given to shape the story, but in the show’s fealty to Morris’s distinctive style — turn off the sound and at times you may think you’re watching “The Thin Blue Line.” “Wilderness” makes copious use of the kind of formally paced, meticulously art-directed recreations Morris pioneered, and viewers’ taste for them will break down along established lines.

Seeing them here, in another project (like “The Thin Blue Line”) about a real-life murder case, makes you more keenly aware of how the staging isn’t just a dramatic device but also a tool for controlling our perception of the story. Morris bemoans the way that a narrative — marketed in McGinniss’s book and the widely viewed subsequent TV mini-series — can take over from the “facts,” but his only recourse is to construct his own narrative and hope that it’s equally compelling.

Morris at one point jokes about being on the other side of the Interrotron, the camera system he invented and employed most notably in his Robert S. McNamara documentary, “The Fog of War.” And setting aside style, “Wilderness,” as a true-crime piece, is in a fog of its own.

Fifty years after MacDonald’s wife and two daughters were killed in their home at Fort Bragg, N.C., and 41 years after he was convicted of murdering them, the case has acquired so many layers of complication and public melodrama that a definitive rendering of it would be an epic, probably impossible task. Morris knocks McGinniss for turning a complex situation into a simple story, but then he figuratively throws up his hands and acknowledges the futility of harnessing the complexity, announcing that an intelligent person knows when to say “I don’t know.”

“Wilderness” is in part a straightforward true-crime ticktock, and even if you’ve read or seen “Fatal Vision” or followed other accounts of the case, it’s a dizzying, fascinating story. The bizarre trajectory includes MacDonald’s account of a band of “hippies” breaking in and attacking him and his family (just months after the Manson murders); the role of his wife’s parents, at first staunch believers in his innocence and then, after he was acquitted by a military court, bitter opponents who successfully campaigned to have him retried; and the tawdry tale of McGinniss, who joined MacDonald’s defense team but later cemented his guilt in the public’s mind. Behind it all is the maddeningly blurry story of Helena Stoeckley, the woman whose on-again, off-again confessions are the primary component of the case for MacDonald’s innocence.

The series is also, necessarily, Morris’s statement on the case. But — slight spoiler alert — if you come to “A Wilderness of Error” looking for a definitive answer, or for some startling final-episode reveal that puts everything in a new light, you’ll be disappointed. This isn’t that show.

If anything, Morris seems less adamant than he was in 2012, and Smerling is scrupulous in presenting the problems with, or the deflating evidence against, every pro-MacDonald argument. The case is a story with too many unreliable narrators among its witnesses and handlers, and Morris admits that he’s no more reliable than anyone else.

Two people you might expect to hear from in the series are absent. (It isn’t clear why in the series.) One is MacDonald, now 76 and serving a life sentence in federal prison; he’s seen in abundant archival footage but apparently wasn’t interviewed by Smerling. Another is Malcolm, whose well-known line, in reference to McGinniss, about the moral indefensibility of journalism comes up in every discussion of MacDonald.

Morris refuted Malcolm in his own book, accusing her of missing the point, but there’s one thing they would probably agree on: Eventually, the story matters more than its subject.

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