Keen to get in on the true crime act that Netflix has nailed so effectively, Disney+ has added the FX documentary show A Wilderness Of Error to its catalogue.
Army surgeon Jeffrey MacDonald was convicted in 1979 of brutally killing his pregnant wife and two young daughters in February 1970, yet does a re-examination of the evidence cast doubt on his guilt?
A Wilderness Of Error is based on the book of the same name by Errol Morris, who is also prominently interviewed for the five-part documentary.
Morris previously rose to fame due to his critically acclaimed documentary The Thin Blue Line, which arguably became instrumental in proving the innocence of death row inmate Randall Dale Adams.
Upon investigating the crimes of Jeffrey MacDonald, he once again set out to get to the bottom of a large number of inconsistencies in the case.
This documentary, however, is directed by Marc Smerling, who pulls together an impressive amount of people related to the case (although this includes one totally unnecessary true crime fan who brings nothing worthwhile whatsoever).
Through a combination of interviews, archive recordings of this well-publicised case, and dramatic re-enactments, the show seeks to break down the crime into strands so it can pull at the myriad of complicated threads.
For the first half of the show, A Wilderness of Error is compelling due to the sheer amount of elements that just don’t make sense. MacDonald claimed then, and has always claimed since, that three servicemen and a woman in a floppy hat entered his home, attacked him, and murdered his family.
Proof or not of this was made difficult due to high contamination of the crime scene by investigating personnel, and whilst the servicemen could not be located, a local woman in a floppy hat provided constantly contradictory accounts of her movements.
Is A Wilderness Of Error Worth Watching?
Smerling does an excellent job of creating the re-enactments; such content is of a higher quality than the frequent ‘soap opera’ approach that some shows take.
All participants are shown from a distance or with their faces out of focus so that look-a-like or not, the presence of actors does not distract you. Such scenes are blended with real or recreated audio as transcribed from source, which all combine into an absorbing trail through the sequence of events.
Where A Wilderness Of Error struggles is where the case itself struggled: an inability to pin down much concrete either way.
Morris freely admits he isn’t convinced that MacDonald is innocent, but also that the basis of his guilt isn’t clear cut either.
Very little time is spent covering a potential motive for why MacDonald may have so horribly ended the life of his wife and young children. The brutality of the crime casts doubt on MacDonald’s guilt, yet any identifiable motive would have added context.
Similarly, much is made of Helena Stoeckly as the woman in the floppy hat. She alternated between admitting she was in the house, denying it, or being confused (thanks in part it would appear to a rampant drug problem).
Interviews with her friends and family paint an ever-shifting picture of the woman that Morris would call ‘a ghost haunting the whole case’. Yet from a narrative standpoint, the last two episodes (which focus on attempts for a retrial based on new evidence) seem to be ever more grasping at straws.
Dubbed the ‘Fatal Vision’ killings (after a popular book by investigative author Joe McGinniss which was turned into an NBC miniseries proclaiming MacDonald’s guilt), the Jeffrey MacDonald case is one that keeps resurfacing either due to revelations of new compelling evidence or the efforts of a collection of hangers-on and fantasists, depending on what you believe.
A Wilderness Of Errors collects these threads to weave them into a fascinating tapestry for you to stand back and take in, even if parts of it are faded beyond recognition.
Words by Mike Record