Meta commentaries are notoriously difficult to pull off without frustrating the audience. While a couple of superhero films have gotten away with it, other genres usually struggle. At what point A Wilderness of Error became a commentary on the state of True Crime is unclear. Yet framing legendary documentarian Errol Morris as an integral part of the story makes the new docuseries far more impressive than others in recent memory. Equal parts a deep dive into a triple homicide and a critique of the media apparatus surrounding the crime, A Wilderness of Error examines one of the first cases to truly be influenced by the medium of television.
Based on Morris’ novel of the same name, A Wilderness of Error examines the triple homicide of Colette Macdonald and her two daughters, Kimberly and Kristen. The pregnant mother and her children were murdered on the night of February 17th, 1970, in the months after the Manson family murders. The sinister crime presented in a similar fashion, with the word “pig” smeared on the wall, and the lone witness accusing hippies of the assault. That witness was Macdonald’s husband, Jeffrey Macdonald, an Army physician. When the evidence starts to point at Jeffrey, the case suddenly turns, and a media circus begins around the trial.
Brought to television by The Jinx‘s Marc Smerling, the series continually looks at the very medium it will occupy. As a five-part docuseries, audiences will find the twisty and weird tale surrounding the Macdonald murders to be more than interesting. In fact, the mystery of what happened that night gets stranger and stranger as the series progresses. This is perhaps the strongest element of the documentary. Many moving parts and characters enter the fray, each with their own motivations and goals. The sheer wackiness of some in the story make for entertaining pieces in a weird story. The audience shifts allegiances with each new addition to the story.
The combination of Smerling and Morris creates a wickedly exciting true-crime tale. The series, which comes from Blumhouse, also leans into the meta-narratives of the genre. Morris’ discussion of the role of entertainment in the trial matters. He is an icon in the genre, and The Thin Blue Line remains one of the most influential documentaries of all-time. Given his intense research on the Macdonal case, he also gets to chime in as an expert on a case’s facts. The very use of Morris as both storyteller and expert makes for a fascinating combo, as is the use of documentary to break the case loose. It was TV that helped to put Macdonald away. As a result, Morris and Smerling seem intent on using its power to continue investigating the case.
A Wilderness of Error also thrives because of its reproductions. The archival footage creates plenty of great moments, but reproductions and cleaned up images are rather gorgeously created. Strong cinematography and production design add a superior storytelling element missing from most true-crime. The cinematography leans into creative lighting choices and creates many striking images. The music adds a gritty, electronic feel that mirrors the electrical equipment the camera often pushes into the frame. It’s a wise choice, and the varied score helps to bind together the seemingly disparate threads of the story.
At the same time, the oddity of the case feels fairly rote in the modern true-crime context. The dozens of true-crime stories have come to television over the past five years. This abundance of similar stories weakens the shock factor of the narrative. Even at only five episodes, it feels like the story stretches to encompass extra material at the fringes. At times, A Wilderness of Error circles the same material from multiple angles. While this adds to the questions surrounding the case, it also causes the story to drag. Unfortunately, the genre has become oversaturated, and the flaws become more apparent. The overstretched narrative and an unfortunate blending of tropes harm A Wilderness of Error from closing on a strong note. Sadly, the series cannot live up to the promise associated with the names involved.