High-profile criminal cases can often be convoluted and confusing—then there are those that reach a truly elevated level of complexity, appearing to pollute any possibility of achieving true justice. Such is the situation surrounding the sensational story of Jeffrey MacDonald, the army captain who was accused of murdering his pregnant wife, Colette, and two young daughters in 1970. The use of the word “story” here is intentional, as an examination of the clash of fact versus presumed account—and the role of each when discussing a murder case—is the main topic probed in the new five-part documentary series, A Wilderness Of Error.
The series comes from a pair who could be considered true crime royalty—Errol Morris and Marc Smerling—with Morris serving as a producer and subject in the series, and Smerling as director. Morris has a history as an investigator, even before the term “citizen detective” was a part of the lexicon. As a documentarian, he’s perhaps best known for his 1988 film The Thin Blue Line, which details the 1976 trial and conviction of Randall Dale Adams for the murder of a Texas police officer. It was Morris’ detailed probe into the case that revealed Adams had been wrongly convicted and ultimately led to his release from prison, which occurred just days before his scheduled execution. Smerling helmed The Jinx, the 2015 docuseries that ultimately led to a murder indictment against its subject, Robert Durst.
Co-produced by Blumhouse Television, A Wilderness Of Error sees the duo take a deep dive into the case against MacDonald, who is serving three consecutive life terms for the murders that took place on February 17, 1970. MacDonald continues to assert that the violent stabbing and brutal bludgeoning of this family was committed by hippies who broke into his house. Part of the source material for the docuseries comes from Morris’ book of the same name: He explains that the title is from an 1839 short story by Edgar Allan Poe, which alludes to wandering about in a landscape of conflicting evidence, desperately trying to discover a truth that may or may not exist, but nonetheless finding a conclusion that is only definitive to the individual who’s taken the journey.
This is precisely what Morris and Smerling accomplish in their FX series. While they’ve supplied all of the materials necessary to understand the complexity of the case, nothing is absolute. This is what makes the unfolding program so intriguing—at every turn, it’s up to the viewer to decide ultimately what is real and what is fabricated. To accomplish this, Smerling amassed an enormous amount of resources outlining many aspects of the MacDonald case. Given that the investigation of the crime occurred half a century ago, the appearance of so many people directly involved in the case is truly impressive, and the number of voice recordings is substantial. However, in the early episodes, the sheer volume of people offering their expertise and/or opinion feels a bit daunting.
The series also contains what has become standard fare in documentaries: shadowy, blurry re-creations that are inserted over audio to have something to show when no actual footage is available. In this case, they’re not done poorly, but their cumulative effect detracts from the experience. In contrast, the through-line of the series grows exponentially more intriguing with each episode. The third installment, which features much of the courtroom wrangling at MacDonald’s murder trial, as told by the actual prosecutors and defense attorneys, is a fascinating study in legal methodology. It also features many of those involved in the case calling out others for perceived mistakes and biases. In short, there’s a lot of engrossing judicial trashing talking going on.
Morris reveals very early on that he’s convinced MacDonald is innocent and that he personally is going to solve the case and prove this, in essence reliving the glory of his work in The Thin Blue Line. But even he concedes that figuring out what is real and what is erroneous or fictionalized is nearly impossible. This is yet another layer of exploration in this series, as Morris and Smerling examine the intersection of an event as it truly happened and the story of said event as it’s told in the aftermath. To emphasize this point, episode four features Joe McGinniss, a writer originally hired by MacDonald to embed with his defense team. At the time, MacDonald was convinced that McGinniss would write a book that proved his innocence. Instead, McGinniss produced a tome that pointed the finger squarely at MacDonald, going so far as to explain in detail just how he most likely committed the crime.
The book McGinniss wrote, Fatal Vision, became a two-part miniseries on NBC, airing in 1984, pulling in approximately 60 million viewers. The movie showed, in bloody detail, McGinniss’ version of MacDonald brutally murdering his family. MacDonald, who has appealed his conviction many times, has stated that he firmly believes he will never get a fair trial because of the book and movie. Morris offers commentary about the notion that every sensational crime is now extensively examined with documentaries and semi-fictionalized accounts. He seems vexed about this as he questions in the opening credits of each episode, “What happens when a narrative takes the place of reality?”
As the documentary assesses every conceivable angle of the case, Smerling asserts that “One of the confounding things about this case is that it’s a prism. You can look through it one way or another.” He’s not kidding in that this trip has everything, including, but not limited to, endlessly conflicting accounts of pivotal events, extensive investigations into the investigators, surprising allusions to conversations that may or may not have taken place, and even a deathbed confession.
The production team has provided a gentle path to follow in this series, but at no time do they hand-hold the audience. Because of this, the ever-shifting focus means that viewers will either find this particular account delicious or suffer from flip-flop fatigue. What does become clear is that A Wilderness Of Error is riddled with people who are trying to use the MacDonald case to make a name for themselves, along with attention-seekers whose only motivation is to somehow be, even tangentially, associated with one of the most famous murder cases in history.
One of the more entertaining aspects of this series is that just when you think you have an alliance with a certain player, believing that you understand their thought process enough to align with their ideal of the truth of the case, something happens that spins you around, causes your stomach to drop, and makes you want to jump off the ride—but only for a minute. This type of continuum is summed up by Morris: “Humans have the infinite capacity to believe anything. People are endlessly suggestible.” But, with all his talk about a crafted narrative affecting the outcome of a case, isn’t that exactly what Morris is doing with his book and this series? It feels like he’s just created yet another thorny stretch of road to explore in that landscape that he and everyone else have been wandering.
One of the smartest decisions Smerling makes is orchestrating a series of on-camera discussions with Morris. At first glance, it might feel like the conversation between them is going to be one of the boring parts of this series; in reality, it’s anything but. This is because Smerling knows just when to prod Morris, and when to sit silently and wait for the continuation of a thought, which often yields a well-thought-out, and yet surprising, response. The final exchange between the two is especially meaningful—there is a pause, just before Morris reveals whether he’s still convinced of his original notion of MacDonald’s innocence, or if he’s changed his mind. The wait is exquisite.
While inconclusive in many ways, A Wilderness Of Error is strangely satisfying. This seems totally in line with everything about the MacDonald case, because, as manifested in the series, this case will never, ever lend itself to a complete understanding. Too much time has elapsed and the presence of too many participants have rendered uncovering the truth impossible. In this respect, the series truly is about a trek through the weeds and woods without ever reaching the elusive final destination.