A Wilderness of Delusion

I recently finished watching Marc Smerling’s docuseries A Wilderness of Error on the FX network. This series is based on the book of the same name by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, published in 2012. The book relates the case of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, who was convicted in 1979 of brutally murdering his pregnant wife and two little girls when the family lived on-base at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, one cold and rainy night in February of 1970. MacDonald was a captain in the Green Berets at the time.

It’s an amazing story, in that it’s particularly amazing that anyone has ever believed that MacDonald could possibly be innocent. And yet Federal appeals courts have heard MacDonald’s case in the years since his conviction on several occasions, whenever some supposedly game-changing new evidence came to light. Appeals related to the case have even ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court—-twice. It is in fact the most litigated and longest running criminal case in U.S. history.

But every alleged piece of new evidence that prompted another appeal by MacDonald and his lawyers always related to the same old discredited story that the convicted family annihilator has been peddling from the very beginning: That a band of drugged out hippies forced their way into the townhouse where the MacDonalds were residing and butchered the family as they chanted, “Acid is groovy; kill the pigs.” (That little flourish in MacDonald’s tale would be laughable if not for the immensely tragic circumstances.) Colette MacDonald and little Kristen and Kimberly were all viciously stabbed and beaten multiple times, while the crazed hippies apparently left MacDonald with only a handful of wounds that were mostly superficial, with the sole exception of a neat, sharp puncture in his chest that collapsed one of his lungs.

I have not read the book but from what I understand Morris seemed strongly inclined at the time of its publication to believe that MacDonald is innocent; he seems much more reticent and ambivalent in the new TV series.

One of his best known documentary films is The Thin Blue Line, released in 1988. The film covers the case of Randall Dale Adams, who was convicted of murdering a police officer in Texas and subsequently sentenced to death. In the course of making the film, not only did Morris discover that Adams was innocent, but that the young man who had actually committed the crime testified against Adams at the trial, helping to convict him. The appalling miscarriage of justice makes for a compelling story. Adams was eventually released from prison and spared the electric chair at very near the 11th hour, in large part due to Morris’ film.

But if Morris has been obsessing over the MacDonald case since the early 1990s, as he says he has, then surely it must have dawned on him at some point that Jeffrey MacDonald is no Randall Dale Adams. The only person who has ever ventured to suggest that she could possibly corroborate MacDonald’s story, a very troubled young woman named Helena Stoeckley, proved to be wildly unreliable. Though she had reportedly told several people that she may have been in the MacDonald home that fateful night and witnessed the carnage herself, upon taking the stand during the 1979 trial she denied ever being there, much to the dismay of defense attorney Bernie Segal. (Smerling’s fascinating companion podcast to the series, Morally Indefensible, provides additional background not included in the FX series that casts even more doubt on Stoeckley’s initial claims.)

Since the marauding-band-of-drug-crazed-hippies story consistently falls apart under just a modicum of serious scrutiny, that leaves only one possibility as to who is the guilty party: Dr. MacDonald. It is tragically obvious. That someone as smart and educated as Errol Morris could seriously believe otherwise is a testament to the limits of human intelligence. Intelligence is often compromised by belief, and we are all vulnerable.

My wife and I once attended a talk given by Morris at the Music Box Theater in Chicago about two and a half years ago. He was not promoting a film at the time, but another book, The Ashtray: Or the Man Who Denied Reality. The book is highly critical of the theories of the famous philosopher of science Dr. Thomas Kuhn, under whom Morris had studied for awhile at Princeton University.

At one point in the evening, the discussion turned to politics. Morris informed his audience that he fully expected Donald Trump to launch a nuclear first-strike on North Korea. Granted, this was during the time of Trump’s rabid “fire and fury” tweets aimed at the Hermit Kingdom, but it also happened to play into the absolutely worst assumptions that his blue state audience had regarding Trump. It was a little too simplistic, this mutually reassuring belief Morris and his audience shared that night, and it turned out to be incredibly wrong. Not only was Morris’ morbid and apocalyptic prediction mistaken, but it turned out to be the exact opposite of what Trump actually did, which was to sit down and talk to Kim Jong-Un face-to-face. That approach was a very far cry from slaughtering the people of North Korea with nuclear fire.

But that didn’t matter at all, of course, for the historic summit that occurred, with its signed agreement for more peaceful relations between the two countries, then conveniently served as a yet another example of Trump’s ongoing affection for totalitarian dictators. But at least everyone has reverted back to their typical apathy toward the U.S.-North Korean relationship ever since it slipped back into its usual bellicosity.

However misguided Morris may be in the views that he may (or may no longer) hold regarding the case of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, he at least deserves credit for encouraging his audience to question their assumptions, and to remind them that the truth is usually not so easily gained.

A Wilderness of Error is imminently watchable, suspenseful, and fraught with dramatic tension throughout, and told through the eyes of memorable real-life characters—-some of them tragically so. This kind of soul searching, however, may be put to much better use than speculating on the decades long, overly indulged protestations of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald.

The Rise of Skywalker, the Implosion of the Star Wars Universe

I took the fam out to see the new Star Wars flick, The Rise of Skywalker, on New Year’s Eve. I’d been intending to sit down since and write up my own thoughts on this final cinematic chapter of the Skywalker saga, but just never seemed to have the time or motivation. It would basically have been a long rant on what a jumbled, incoherent, pointless mess of a movie it is. And who really wants to spend time writing or reading about that?

I had given this new trilogy the benefit of the doubt for the first two installments, The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, for all of their flaws. But Skywalker wraps it all up with just a bunch of laughable MacGuffins that lead to other MacGuffins, unresolved relationships, and nostalgia-cheese that shamelessly exploits, for cheap feelies, the original characters and ideas of the franchise’s creator, whom Disney ironically shut out of their process. Skywalker even inexplicably resurrects the villain that George Lucas definitively killed off in Return of the Jedi.

This video from The Critical Drinker sums up the Skywalker train wreck much better than anyone else could, in his inimitably wry and uniquely entertaining fashion.

(Nod to author John C. Wright.)

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Rian Johnson Gets His ‘Knives Out’

Spoilers galore are ahead from the recently released ‘Knives Out.’

I recently took the family out to the movies to see Knives Out, the new film directed by Rian Johnson that’s being marketed to audiences as a “whodunnit” mystery-suspense caper. The trailers definitely give you the impression that the story is in the style of Agatha Christie or Clue, sort of cutting it down the middle between the two stylistically in that the comedy is much less broad than it is in Clue.

Come to find out, a whodunnit is not exactly what it is. It starts out that way, to be sure, but even before the story is half way through, the audience is supplied with a major piece of the puzzle, and at that point it becomes much more of a Hitchcockian suspense thriller than a mystery–though there’s still some mystery remaining to be solved, to be sure, as anti-climactic as it is.

Johnson’s first two indy features, the high school noir Brick and the time-travel potboiler Looper, while not flawless, are highly enjoyable and entertaining films worth watching. Disney took notice and tapped him to direct Star Wars: The Last Jedi. A lot of critics have referred to Johnson “subverting expectations” with Knives Out, and putting a new twist on a genre that’s been a bit of a chestnut over the years should be welcomed. And if there’s anyone who should succeed in doing that, it should be the director of Brick and Looper.

However, and call me old fashioned if you like, I’m of the opinion that the plot should make some sense. It should at least be somewhat believable in order for what the director intends to be the “twist”–the intended subversion of the expected, if you will–to be truly satisfying for an audience, rather than, say, an act of cinematic masturbation for the director’s own personal pleasure. The latter is much more the case with Knives Out than the former. And the reason is simply politics.

That’s right: Politics.

Politics is the reason that Knives Out‘s plot stretches credulity to the point where you feel as though Rian Johnson is literally urinating all over your brain. I had a similar sensation when I saw Carrie Fischer flying through space in Last Jedi. Only with Knives Out, it felt as though the urine stream hit my brain even harder, and it never stopped for the entire two hours.

This is where the spoilers come in, so if you’re thinking that you still might want to head over to your nearest cineplex and make up your own mind, now would be the time for you to check out of my little critique. I don’t think I’d be spoiling much for you, however, if you stuck around. Most of what I’m about to divulge you’d probably see coming from a mile away anyways.

Knives Out

But if you leave now determined to go pay full ticket price at your local cineplex, you should know that it’s the film’s star-studded cast that makes it as enjoyable as it is. In my opinion, it’s definitely a streaming-on-a-rainy-Sunday-afternoon kind of flick. Your life wouldn’t exactly suffer for the lack of enrichment in the meantime.

The catalyzing incident of our story is the sudden death of the very successful, very rich, and very old best-selling mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey, played by Christopher Plummer. It appears to be a suicide, and by a very grisly method at that. The morning after a lavish party at his house celebrating his 85th birthday, he’s found in an out-of-the-way room in his massive, labyrinthine gothic mansion, with his throat cut, the bloodied dagger he allegedly used on himself lying nearby.

The local police detectives have made up their minds that it’s an open-and-shut suicide, end of story. But a mysterious private investigator, Benoit Blanc–played by Daniel Craig with a southern drawl that’s not quite as jarring as you’d think it would be–shows up to question the suspects. He eventually reveals that someone has anonymously hired him to look into the case, having left him an envelope stuffed with a thick wad of cash. Thus, it seems, someone suspects foul play.

The suspects consist of Harlan Thrombey’s thoroughly cruddy family: his widowed daughter-in-law (Toni Collette), who Harlan has discovered pilfering money from him under the guise of paying for his granddaughter’s college tuition; his son-in-law (Don Johnson), whose extramarital affair is found out by Harlan, and which Harlan threatens to expose to his daughter (Jamie Lee Curtis); Harlan’s son, Walt (Michael Shannon), who, much to Walt’s dismay, Harlan cuts out of his independent publishing house due to Walt’s incessant badgering that Harlan allow film and TV adaptations of Harlan’s work; and Harlan’s wayward grandson, Ransom (yes, he’s actually named Ransom, played by Chris Evans), who storms out of Harlan’s study in a huff during the party, following a loud and heated verbal altercation.

So–whodunnit? If it really was a homicide, that is, rather than the suicide it appears to be.

As I’ve mentioned above, Johnson tips off the audience fairly early as to what actually happened to Thrombey–or at least most of it: by way of a flashback, we are informed that his nurse, Marta (a dull, thankless role expertly brought to life by Ana de Armas), accidentally overdosed Harlan with morphine when she mistook a vial of the stuff for the regular medication that she usually follows up with a low-dose morphine chaser. She realizes her deadly error when she examines the labels on the vials after administering both medications. And the antidote for the morphine is missing from her nurse’s kit.

And what’s Harlan’s initial reaction? Is it, “What the f**k did you just do to me?” Why no. The film has established that Harlan and Marta have a close, grandfatherly/granddaughterly kind of relationship, so naturally, even Marta’s fatal error doesn’t stir up any anger towards her. Once he realizes that he’ll be dead from the OD by the time paramedics reach his secluded big house out in the country, Harlan decides to spend his last several minutes on this Earth–as his life is supposedly ebbing from his body with each passing moment–concocting an alibi for Marta so that nobody discovers that she accidentally caused his death. Because if anyone discovers that Marta was responsible for Harlan Thrombey’s death, her mother, an undocumented immigrant, would most certainly end up deported, as would Marta and the rest of her family, most likely.

Once Harlan concocts a scheme for Marta to secretly flee the scene of the crime undetected and he sends her on her way with his careful instructions, the old man then proceeds to slice his own throat with the dagger.

“Subverting expectations?” Sure. The immigration politics of the film, integrated into the script in such a clumsy and hamfisted fashion, completely subvert the audience’s expectation of a plot that fits into some sort of logic recognized by other human beings who are not so politically obsessed as Rian Johnson.

But wait, it gets better.

It turns out that Marta didn’t actually kill Harlan after all! Not even on accident. The real culprit, the grandson–the improbably named Ransom (Evans)–in an effort to kill his grandfather and frame Marta for it, swapped the vials of morphine and the other medication with the hope that Marta would end up overdosing Harlan with the morphine. Harlan, you see, has stipulated in his will that his entire estate be left to Marta, leaving nothing at all for his cruddy family. But Marta is such an expert nurse that she reflexively gave Harlan the correct medication after all, and the usual low, safe dosage of morphine, just based on the look of the medicine that was stored in each vial.

I wonder if the following scene will be included in the extended director’s cut:

HARLAN (after having just explained his plan to Marta that will help her sneak out of the house and evade detection, looking a little puzzled): By the way, are you sure you just accidentally gave me a 100mg overdose of morphine?

MARTA (teary and upset): I just happened to look at the labels after I injected you…so yes, I’m quite sure. Again, I’m so sorry!

HARLAN: And you said I have only 8-10 minutes to live?

MARTA: That’s right.

HARLAN: You told me that about, what, 3 or 4 minutes ago, would you say?

MARTA: Yes, I think that’s about right.

HARLAN: So I only have about, what, 5-6 minutes left to live…?

MARTA: Yes! Oh, I’m so sorry!

HARLAN: You know, it’s funny, but…I don’t feel anything yet. No dopiness or wooziness. Nothing at all. Shouldn’t I be feeling some symptoms of the overdose by now…?

(But Marta, overcome with emotion and desperation, has already fled. Harlan shrugs his shoulders, picks up a dagger, lies down on the divan, and slices his own throat.)

The actual murder that occurs in our story, as it turns out, is that of Fran, Harlan’s housekeeper (Edi Patterson). Fran knew of Ransom’s deception with the medication–or rather, attempted deception–and she was trying to give Marta a toxicology report from the medical examiner that showed there was no morphine overdose after all. By this point in the film, Ransom has been befriending Marta and misleading her into thinking that he’s an ally ever since the reading of Harlan’s will. Ransom, it turned out, killed Fran by overdosing her with morphine (or some other such drug).

And it’s Marta who coaxes a confession from Ransom by telling him, following a phone call she takes in Ransom’s presence, from a doctor where Fran is hospitalized, that Fran has actually survived. As soon as Ransom admits to having attacked Fran, Marta lets rip a stream of vomit. I forgot to mention–it’s established early in the film that Marta literally cannot tell a lie without becoming physically ill to the point of throwing up. The lie in this instance was that the phone call she took from the hospital was to inform her that Fran had actually died rather than survived.

It turns out that it was Ransom who secretly hired Blanc to look into the case, apparently with the hope that Blanc would conclude that Marta was responsible for Harlan’s death. There’s no indication that any of the other characters in the film ever suspect Marta, much less Blanc. And it’s clear throughout that the audience isn’t ever expected to, either.

If a director wants to present a political angle in his film, there’s nothing wrong with that. But at least strive for some artistic finesse, please. A second generation daughter of illegal immigrants who cannot tell a lie without becoming violently ill does not make for very believable storytelling, not because we’re supposed to assume that such a person must be dishonest, but because the character approaches a saintliness that matches no real live human being.

And Marta is a dull and boring character. The camera loves Ana de Armas, and her eyes convey multitudes. She is interesting to watch, with absolutely no thanks from Rian Johnson’s lifeless writing, and she rescues her role from terminal lameness.

There are some clever nods to the current political zeitgeist throughout the film. Walt’s teenaged son, who gives the impression of being constantly on Twitter harassing liberals and minorities from his smartphone, is referred to by another character as an “alt-right troll.” “What are you doing on Twitter today, swatting Syrian refugees?” Toni Colette asks him in one scene. And a scene during Harlan’s birthday party in which members of the family square off against each other over Trump and immigration is probably the most believable scene in the entire film.

But the sledgehammer dialogue at the end–good grief. Ransom’s “how-dare-you?” speech in which he rails at Marta for invading his family’s “ancestral home”–did Johnson lift that right off of an alt-right web site?

Don’t piss on my brain and tell me I’m being enlightened.

A Disappointing ‘Vice’

I finally got around to watching writer-director Adam McKay’s Vice on Amazon Prime. I’d been eagerly anticipating a viewing ever since the first trailer came out but just never had the chance to catch it at the theater. I was overjoyed when my wife and I had a couple of hours to spare for a movie at home and she suggested watching it. And so we watched it.

And what a massive disappointment.

Vice is a rambling, chaotic mess. It can’t seem to decide what kind of story it wants to tell about Dick Cheney. There isn’t anything revealed about him that is particularly surprising or insightful, other than perhaps his wayward youth. (Something he has in common with George W. Bush.) Cheney was apparently something of a ne’er-do-well who lived under constant threat of abandonment by his wife, Lynne. It all changed, at least according to the film, when he went to work as an intern in Washington, D.C., and he happened to hear a welcome speech by a U.S. congressman from Illinois named Donald Rumsfeld. That was when Cheney decided that he was a Republican and wanted to spend the rest of his life in politics.

Some of the episodes of Cheney’s life that the film chooses to delve into seem a bit odd to me. Yes, it goes into the 9/11 attacks and his immediate push to at least partially blame it on Iraq, but it barely touches at all on his time as secretary of Defense under Bush Sr. Cheney was instrumental in pushing the U.S. into war against Iraq the first time as well, and under just as patently false pretenses as those that were offered for the second Iraq war. One of the most egregious humdingers was the claim that classified U.S. intelligence surveillance photos revealed that hundreds of thousands of Saddam’s forces were amassed along the Saudi border. That’s what convinced the Saudis to allow their country to serve as a base for the U.S. and its allies, from which they would launch their “Operation: Desert Storm.” (Osama bin Laden later cited the continued U.S. military presence on Saudi soil after the war’s end as one of his main beefs against America.) No such surveillance imagery has been confirmed to this day. It was simply a lie.

It goes completely unmentioned in McKay’s film, however. Instead, he spends time on Cheney’s efforts, in collaboration with anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, to roll back the estate tax. I don’t know, if I were making a movie about Dick Cheney, I would find Cheney’s manipulating the country into a war far more dramatically compelling than a subplot about tax policy, but maybe that’s just me.

McKay deserves some credit for at least making some attempt to humanize his subject, such as Cheney and his family grappling with his daughter Mary coming out as a lesbian at a time when social acceptance of homosexuals was not nearly as common as it is today, not to mention the political implications for Cheney in light of his conservative constituency. The film depicts him as being rather forward-thinking and unconditionally accepting of Mary as she is, and McKay understandably sees this as one of his subject’s redeeming qualities. But it seems almost tacked onto the film as an afterthought, as though somebody forced McKay to mention at least one thing about Dick Cheney that he found positive.

As far as Christian Bale’s performance is concerned, it looks like he got an Oscar nomination for doing an excellent Dick Cheney impression. 

Any good biographical film should seek to understand its subject, to try to find out what makes him tick, how he sees the world and his place in it. I can’t say that I gleaned anything of the sort from Vice.