Both the first and last episodes of Marc Smerling’s documentary miniseries for FX, A Wilderness of Error, begin with scenes of filmmaker Errol Morris in a starched white shirt, sitting down for a formal interview in a studio. “This is like the Interrotron,” Morris jokes in the fifth and final episode of the series, referring to his nickname for a camera he designed so that interview subjects can look directly at him and into the camera’s lens at the same time. “Am I directing here?”
He’s most definitely not. The miniseries’ conclusion makes clear that while most of its time is spent laying out the history and contradictory theories about Jeffery MacDonald’s guilt or innocence in the 1970 murders of his wife and two daughters, the real subject of the documentary is Morris himself. The miniseries bears the same title as Morris’ 2012 book on the murders, but it does not share that book’s obsessive attention to every tiny physical detail of the case. Instead, Smerling focuses on the most camera-friendly aspect: a host of unreliable narrators offering sensational and contradictory versions of what happened. Errol Morris, one of the most influential and admired documentarians of all time, is reduced to just one more speaker to be second-guessed.
Does Smerling’s A Wilderness of Error prove that, contrary to what Morris believes, MacDonald committed the murders? It does not. The maddening and elusive figure of Helena Stoeckley—the woman who privately confessed on multiple occasions to having been present in the MacDonald home when Colette and her daughters were killed but who denied it all when called to the stand during MacDonald’s trial—remains impossible to completely dismiss. She was drug-addled and possibly deluded, yet not only did she match the description of the woman MacDonald claims to have seen in his home but one of the military police responding to MacDonald’s telephone call for help also saw a woman matching that description walking through the neighborhood in the early morning hours as he drove to the scene.
Much of the final episode of the miniseries is devoted to discrediting a deputy U.S. marshal who claimed that Stoeckley confessed to him while he was transferring her from South Carolina to Raleigh and that he witnessed prosecutor Jim Blackburn threatening to indict her for murder if she testified to being in the house when the murders were committed. The marshal turns out not to have driven Stoeckley to Raleigh but on a much shorter trip, and his former colleagues describe him as an attention-seeker. Blackburn insists that the marshal was not present during the prosecution team’s interview with Stoeckley. But Blackburn himself is a disbarred lawyer who did time in federal prison for fraud. Colette MacDonald’s brother appears in news footage, pronouncing that the marshal can’t be trusted because he has been caught lying, but the same can be said of Blackburn.
As ever with the MacDonald murder case, it’s impossible to know who to trust, but this was far from the only occasion on which Stoeckley claimed to have witnessed an ex-boyfriend and another man kill Colette MacDonald. (The ex-boyfriend, a Vietnam War veteran, also told friends that he’d committed the crimes.) The miniseries implies that Prince Beasley, the narcotics officer who used Stoeckley as an informant and recognized her from MacDonald’s description of his alleged attackers, somehow convinced Stoeckley that she’d been on the scene. The evidence for this is flimsy to say the least: An old friend of Stoeckley’s who didn’t like Beasley surmises that he supplied Stoeckley with heroin and “she would do anything for him.” And in one of his few appearances on camera, Smerling tells Morris that Beasley was the first to realize he could profit from his association with such a sensational case—although Beasley apparently did not gain much from his involvement.
That’s not to say that all of these hypotheses are wrong. Beasley could have tricked or persuaded Stoeckley to make her confessions, and the U.S. marshal might have lied about hearing her confess or seeing the prosecution intimidate her into recanting that confession on the stand. But none of that has been proved any more conclusively than Stoeckley’s involvement in the crime has. Nevertheless, the FX miniseries presents these arguments as if they are particularly damning to the case for MacDonald’s innocence.
But the slam dunk in this episode—or what’s presented as one—comes later, when Smerling plays a video tape of Stoeckley, who died in 1983, being interviewed by Beasley and Ted Gunderson, a former FBI agent. She describes the assault on MacDonald differently from MacDonald himself. He claims he saw the flash of a knife and was struck by a club; she says no weapons were used. “So either she’s got her story wrong, or Jeffrey’s got his story wrong,” Smerling says. Morris replies, falteringly, “I think that Jeffrey’s account is suspect. It really seems internally inconsistent and not entirely believable. Do I believe that means there were no intruders in the house? Maybe.” Does he think, after watching that interview, that Stoeckley was in the house? “I don’t know.”
Morris comes across as genuinely backfooted and unsure here, a marked change from the confident poser of prickly questions who appears in other episodes of the miniseries. Can it really be that he—the author of an exhaustive 544-page book on this crime—has never noticed the differences between these two stories? (In fact, as Morris told me, he has long been aware of the discrepancies.) Morris recovers his composure and reverts to general statements about confirmation bias and other obstacles to arriving at the truth, but the sense of the master having absorbed a body blow remains.
Morris’ work has changed documentary filmmaking, and his influence is visible everywhere in the FX miniseries, particularly in its repetition of moodily noirish reenactment footage and the absence of any authoritative narration. But the most celebrated film Smerling worked on, The Jinx, for which he was co-producer and co-writer, has its own signature move: a gotcha finale in which the film’s subject, accused murderer Robert Durst, is recorded muttering “Killed them all” to himself into a mic he didn’t realize was still hot. Audiences regarded this as tantamount to a confession, but in truth there are other, equally plausible explanations for Durst’s words, and a defense attorney could readily make mincemeat of the notion that Durst’s guilt has been proved by the recording.
“People take sides,” Morris tells Smerling. “People respond to one narrative vs. another. We are compelled by narratives rather than by evidence.” That’s one reason why Morris himself is so obsessed with objects, like the milkshake that flies out of the hand of a police officer in The Thin Blue Line, depicted in a reenactment shown over and over again during the film. Morris wants his viewers to scrape away the crust of words and stories encasing these objects and what happened to them, to see the evidence afresh. The book version of A Wilderness of Error is mostly concerned with objects; Smerling’s documentary series is mostly not. The use of Morrisian reenactments seems rather pointless here, especially if you watch all five episodes at once and notice just how much screen time is devoted to footage of people, shot from the knees down, walking as portentous music plays in the background. A woman dressed in white with a blond wig, floppy hat, and white go-go boots is depicted over and over again, treading slowly down sidewalks by night, for no good reason.
Morris’ dilemma is that the physical evidence—in his mind, the only possible source of truth in the MacDonald murder case—was contaminated by inept police work and is therefore unreliable (although informed opinion does vary on this). Smerling’s mistake is that he puts too much faith in words, specifically in the storytelling of a rogues’ gallery of suspects and witnesses whose statements can be doubted and reinterpreted until they weave a trap capable of snaring Morris, the king of evidence, himself. Morris’ book meticulously chronicled a wilderness of errors. All Smerling’s documentary does is get lost in a wilderness of voices.