With Wormwood, documentary filmmaker Errol Morris creates his boldest, most thought provoking film yet. A delirious, haunting blend of talking-head documentary and narrative reenactment; a true crime saga that doubles as a government conspiracy polemic. A saga wrought with mystery, grief, scandal, and puzzlement. There’s never really been anything quite like this.
Dramatic reenactments of real-life moments are so commonplace in documentaries now – particularly true crime documentaries – that it’s easy to forget that there was a time when they were considered taboo. In 1988, director Errol Morris’ documentary The Thin Blue Line flipped the documentary form on its head, examining the murder of a police officer on a lonely stretch of highway, and the clearly innocent man convicted of the crime. Morris’ film made headlines when it lead to the eventual release of the innocent man, but it also had documentary purists furrowing their brows due to the nature of the film.
Unlike most documentaries at the time, The Thin Blue Line was loaded with dramatic reenactments that restaged the events surrounding the murder – a decision that seemed to go against the very nature of what people understood documentaries to be. Yet what came across as unusual and questionable at the time of The Thin Blue Line would eventually become commonplace. Now, whenever you watch a true crime docu-series on TV, dramatic re-enactments are abundant, and other documentary feature filmmakers have adopted them as well.
Morris takes dramatic re-enactments to an entirely new level with his latest film, Wormwood. In fact, there are so many dramatic re-enactments here that I’m not entirely sure you can even classify this film as strictly a documentary. Instead, Wormwood is an engrossing, strange, haunting work of art that blends fact and fiction, fantasy and reality, in a possibly fruitless quest for the truth – or at least some version of the truth.
At the center of Wormwood is Eric Olson, a sharp-witted, droll man still haunted by the death of his father, Frank Olson, a biochemist with CIA ties. In 1953, Frank Olson died after a fall from a window on the thirteenth-floor hotel room at the Hotel Statler in New York. And there’s the rub: did Frank jump from the window, committing suicide – or was he pushed? The Olson family always had their questions about the event, and in 1975 they received a possible answer: the United States government revealed that, as part of the CIA’s top secret MKULTRA program – a program that strove to learn the secrets of mind control, among other things – Frank had been unknowingly dosed with LSD nine days before his death. According to the government, it was a mental breakdown caused by the LSD that caused Frank to take his own life. The government issued an apology, provided the Olson family with some monetary compensation, and swore to never do anything like this again.
Case closed, right? Maybe not. Eric Olson has, understandably, never been able to let this go, and the more he’s dug into the events, the more he’s come to believe that his father was deliberately pushed from that hotel window – pushed because he had learned some particularly damning secrets involving the government.
It’s a juicy story, wrought with the type of government conspiracies that would make Oliver Stone start howling with excitement like a cartoon wolf in a Tex Avery cartoon. But if you’re looking for definitive answers, you won’t find them in Wormwood. In fact, I’m not even sure Morris is interested in the answer. What he is interested in, however, is the story. Or stories, to be precise, because Wormwood presents several different possible solutions to what happened to Frank Olson. And that’s where the dramatic re-enactments come in.
The reenactments in The Thin Blue Line, and Morris’ other documentaries, are often vague and expressionistic. We rarely see the faces of the actors portraying the real-life subjects – they tend to be shot at angles that shroud them in shadow, perhaps to keep us from realizing the actor playing the part doesn’t entirely look like their real-life subject. But that’s not the case with Wormwood. Here, Morris stages the reenactments as a full-blown feature film, with recognizable actors stepping into the parts.
Peter Sarsgaard plays the late Frank Olson, and we watch as he slowly unravels before our eyes. Sarsgaard’s Olson is at the center of a shadowy, unsettling scenario that involves loaded glances, smoke filled rooms, and a constant air of menace. Other actors show up as well: Tim Blake Nelson, adopting a creepy stutter, and Bob Balaban, possessing an eerie calmness, play Frank’s work associates who are clearly up to no good, and Molly Parker plays Frank’s suffering, confused wife.
Throughout Wormwood, Morris cuts back and forth between long stretches of narrative feature to interviews with Eric Olson and other figures associated with the case. The effect can often be jarring – sometimes, we stay so long in a narrative reenactment stretch that we almost forget about the interview segments, and vice versa. It’s an overall curious approach to this material, and I’m not entirely sure if it makes much sense from a technical standpoint. Yet at the same time, Wormwood becomes all the more engrossing and hypnotic as it unfolds across a lengthy six hour runtime. No stone is left unturned here, yet there are no real answers. And perhaps that’s what Morris is most fascinated by: the attempt to tell a story without knowing the ending.
Wormwood is firmly an Errol Morris documentary – like most of Morris’ films, Morris makes his presence known, flinging out questions or droll statements from off camera during interview segments. Yet the filmmaker also abandons his tried and true techniques. There’s no sign of Morris’ “Interrotron” here – a machine the filmmaker uses that enables his subjects to speak directly to the camera. Instead, Morris opts for a wider frame, with the camera further away from the subject – Eric Olson is sometimes sitting slightly to the side of the camera, looking off into an unseen distance. Here, unlike other Morris docs, the interview subjects aren’t addressing the audience directly – they’re instead shooting their questions and answers out into the void of time, waiting for a response that will never arrive.
In the end, Wormwood is unlike anything you’ve seen before. It’s bold, inventive, and exhausting. Just when you think you’ve solved the mystery, Morris resets the timeline and says, “Ah, but what if it actually happened this way?” The effect is disorienting, yet strangely rewarding. Morris isn’t so much trying to solve a mystery as he is trying to let Eric Olson tell his story. At times, Eric compares himself to Hamlet – a lone figure still haunted by his father’s ghost. But one should take care before comparing oneself to that doomed Dane – after all, Hamlet’s quest drove him to madness.
Wormwood is now streaming on Netflix.
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