Film Reviews

Review: ‘Wormwood’

Errol Morris investigates a murder most foul in true crime doc-drama hybrid

Nicole Rivelli/Netflix

(USA, 240 min.)
Dir. Errol Morris; Writ. Kieran Fitzpatrick, Steven Hathaway, Molly Rokosz

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” observes director Errol Morris while interviewing subject Dr. Eric Olson in Wormwood. Morris talks with Olson at great lengths about the bizarre but true story surrounding the death of his father, Frank Olson. The quote from Hamlet is an on-point conclusion for the Shakespearean proportions of the very strange circumstances of Frank’s death. Eric Olson is the first to raise the Hamlet parallels while describing a story that spirals from messy tragedy into full-fledged government conspiracy. It’s the kind of tale that makes one’s head spin to the point of questioning one’s reality, much like the tempestuous tragedy in which the Prince of Denmark finds himself in Shakespeare’s play.

Wormwood is Morris’s fascinating new true crime doc-drama hybrid. The four-hour documentary epic is perfectly catered to binge-watching curiosity, and this six-part Netflix mini-series is one of the documentary events of the year. (Note: this review considers the four-hour theatrical cut presented without episode breaks/chapter designations.)

The documentary centers upon Morris’s extensive interview with Eric Olson who describes the traumatic experience of getting the news in 1953, when he was just a few years old, that his father was dead. The explanation given was that his father either fell or jumped from the window of the thirteenth floor of Manhattan’s Statler Hotel. Olson explains how the two verbs presented to him—“fell” and “jumped”—are equally troubling but have vastly different implications.

Morris runs with the either/or circumstances of Frank Olson’s death as Eric anxiously expands upon the complicated web that spiraled out of his father’s accident, suicide, or murder. The plot thickens when Olson explains how his dad worked in biological warfare for the CIA and notes how the government revealed that Frank was subjected to tests with LSD at the time of his death. According to the White House, Frank “tripped” and then tripped.

The film makes a brilliant case through powerful testimonies and shreds of circumstantial evidence. As one lawyer interviewed in the film states, there is enough evidence here to convict an individual, but all fingers point to the government, and hanging a charge on Uncle Sam isn’t quite as easy. The story of Frank’s death and the complexity of cover-ups that came after are too numerous, convoluted, and wild to distil into any article, and it would be a disservice to Morris’s film to try. Half the fun of Morris’s conversation with Olson is simply the sight of the director’s hands flying through the air in bewildered reaction to the subject’s story, and in the spirit of true crime docs like The Imposter or Amanda Knox, the case becomes wilder the closer to the truth it gets.

Wormwood sees the master filmmaker in his element as he wraps the audience within the web of lies and deception in which Frank Olson’s death is forever enmeshed. Morris draws upon his experience with true crime, which memorably began with The Thin Blue Line and develops Wormwood’s intriguing themes of uncertainty by weaving dramatic interpretations within the documentary materials. These strikingly shot snippets of pulp fiction cast Peter Sarsgaard as Frank Olson and Canada’s Molly Parker as his wife, Alice, in fragments that may help piece together the fractured narrative of Frank’s life and death.

The compelling performances afford a sense of the family ripped apart by this tragedy. Sarsgaard is excellent as Frank, who is constantly on edge, looking over his shoulder while distrusting his colleagues and, by the end, himself. Parker is also strong in a relatively small part as Alice, who slips into alcoholism as she struggles to make sense of her husband’s death. Her son explains in the interview scenes how Alice’s gin martinis with friends turned out to be part of the government conspiracy to keep the family silent. Keep “the wife” good and plastered and it cuts her energy and credibility. Morris reframes the documentary and dramatic elements alike so that one constantly looks at the images anew.

Morris zeroes in on the ten-day period leading up to Olson’s suicide/accident/murder and steeps the film in an atmosphere of brooding paranoia. Olson’s story, after all, falls during the height of America’s fears with Communism, when scares with nuclear and biological warfare kept the nation’s nerves frazzled. The pieces of evidence that arise in interviews fill in half the story, while imagination completes the rest to convincingly point to murder most foul.

Wormwood dexterously blends fact and fiction with quickly paced editing that interchangeably uses archival images, interviews with lawyers and journalists like Seymour Hersh, snippets of newspaper headlines, and photographs to create an impressionist portrait of the elusiveness of truth. The frenetic energy of Wormwood’s collage ultimately puts the viewer in the headspace of its chief subject, Eric Olson, who has obsessed about the details of this case for over sixty years. Images repeat like a fever dream of all-consuming doubt and passion.

Morris injects into this mix elements of Laurence Olivier’s Oscar-winning adaptation of Hamlet to further the parallels of the (potentially) mad prince and the troubled state of Denmark. Olivier’s atmospheric Hamlet offers a fine visual complement to both Frank’s paranoia and Eric’s obsession. Wormwood shows men undone by being forced to question the state they’re in.

At the same time, there’s so much evidence of things being rotten in Denmark that one can’t help but distrust the state one’s in when mysterious—perhaps conspiratorial— deaths are as mundane as elections and taxes. Nearly everybody dies by the end of Hamlet and Morris brings the audience to a precipice at which further revelations could push any of the involved parties over the edge. Unravelling the tangled yarn of the Olson family tragedy will transfix anyone with the slightest fascination for conspiracy theories.

Wormwood premieres on Netflix on Friday, Dec. 15.