Errol Morris has built a career around eccentric real-life figures, from pet cemetery managers to executioners, but in recent years his track record has been spotty. His portrait of photographer Elsa Dorfman (“The B-Side”) and a two-hour interrogation session with Donald Rumsfeld (“The Unknown Known”) weren’t duds so much as routine efforts from a filmmaker who excels at peculiar investigations into the whims of human behavior. As if making up for missed time, Morris pairs one of his best subjects in years with his most ambitious work to date, “Wormwood,” a six-part Netflix miniseries that screened in its entirety at the Telluride Film Festival in advance of its December premiere on the platform.
While much of Morris’ sensibilities comes through in this sprawling tale of government cover-ups and idiosyncratic loners, it’s also a radical break from the dense, interview-driven approach that has distinguished his movies for decades. Gone is the patented Interrotron, Morris’ in-camera device that allows his interviewees to stare straight at the audience. Instead, he sits across the table from a series of men invested in an unsolved mystery, as if they’ve ventured into his laboratory to workshop their concerns. And Morris is quite the experimenter: Their testimonies unfolds alongside a series of dramatic reenactments that may or may not illustrate the precise nature of the events being described. The result is a documentary-fiction combination like nothing seen before.
The series is also a welcome jaunt through vintage Morris terrain, with an obsessive central character enmeshed in murky conspiracy theories and idiosyncratic observations laced with cultural and historical reference points. Loaded with mountains of intrigue and a whole lot of dead-ends, it gels nicely with the recent spate of true-crime narratives, from “Serial” to “The Jinx,” while catapulting beyond that terrain — which Morris invented ages ago — to explore a new approach. With scripted sequences that complicate the mystery, it’s a remarkable deep-dive into an alleged murder and subsequent cover-up by the CIA, a rabbit hole of possibilities that includes bad acid trips, chemical weapons intel, and skeletal remains. Just don’t expect any easy answers — or any real answers at all. Unlike Morris’ breakthrough “The Thin Blue Line,” which exonerated a man on death row, the solution to this murder is beside the point.
At the center of “Wormwood” are two ill-fated men: Frank Olson, a CIA operative and biochemist who either jumped or was thrown out of a Manhattan hotel window in 1953, plummeting to his death and leaving his family pleading for answers. His son, Eric, has spent the last 60-plus years intent on uncovering the top-secret governmental dealings that put his father in trouble with the organization and possibly precipitated his demise. As Eric talks through the possibility that his father may have been killed, others fill in the details about Eric’s unrealized potential, with the tragedy of his life wasted on a quest that never really ended. With time, the son emerges as a victim almost as much as his father.
Half the drama unfolds in typical Morris terms, with Eric — now a middle-aged loner grappling with a maze of possibilities — engaged in a roving long-form interview about his theories and frustrations; the other half takes the form of stylish, dreamlike narrative, with Peter Sarsgaard playing a downtrodden Frank in the days leading up to his death.
The bizarre scenario stems from an ill-fated attempt by the CIA to experiment with LSD, and the ensuing negative effect that it has on Olson that leads his colleagues to question his fitness for duty. That turning point, Eric argues, set in motion a series of events that almost certainly caused his father’s colleagues to decide he had been compromised. But there’s just one problem with Eric’s assertion: He can’t really prove it. Over the years, his efforts range from fighting the government in court and exhuming his father’s body for an independent investigation, but each new effort seems to further isolate him from the truth.
As the episodes pile up, Morris unspools a beguiling collage of Eric’s investigation and scripted sequences that envision the various possibilities of Frank’s last days. Unfolding like a shadowy noir, these scenes are unlike anything Morris’ oeuvre to date; they crop up throughout each episode without explanation, and the extent to which they illustrate real events remains unclear.
Ironically in a project directed by one of the most famous documentarians working today, these sequences are far more compelling than the rambling interviews. Unlike “Making a Murderer,” the series isn’t designed to arrive at any major turning points; instead, it scrutinizes the essence of Eric’s desire for a clean ending he may never find. With ample split screens, a pounding score, and fragments of archival footage alternating with the acted scenes and interviews, “Wormwood” excels at echoing the hall of mirrors that define Eric’s mindset.
Given the resources of an expanded playground, Morris sometimes gets carried away. His recurring cutaways to “Hamlet” (the play gives the series its title, referencing a line about the bitter plant) emphasize Eric’s self-destructive need to avenge his father’s death, but after a few episodes the device grows tired. As Morris grills Eric, the filmmaker cuts to a series of disorienting angles and split screens that do less to enhance the fragmented narrative than cause headaches.
Fortunately, each episode finds its way back to the embellished reenactments, which are Art Deco visions of urban unrest that wouldn’t look out of place on “Mad Men.” With muted expressions and sunken eyes leading the way, Sarsgaard becomes the drama’s puzzled soul, while his son fleshes out details about Frank Olson’s role in a misguided attempted by the CIA to experiment with LSD. At some point, Frank got depressed and unsure about whether he could continue in his job; the CIA, presumably concerned that he might leak confidential information, took matters into their own hands. But did they actually kill him or did he kill himself?
“Wormwood” repeatedly dances around both possibilities, with Sarsgaard’s character forced to attend a Broadway show by his peers and then locked in his hotel room late at night under dubious circumstances that only get more puzzling as the series goes on. It’s clear early on that Morris cares less about solving the case than digging into Eric’s desire to do so. Even one key interview subject, cantankerous journalist Seymour Hersh, falls short of providing concrete answers. Though Hersh claims to know more than he’s letting on about Frank Olson’s fate, he insists he can’t give up his sources, while noting that existing information about the case is “patched together or incoherent.” That’s the essence of “Wormwood,” and it plays out like a dare — go with Morris’ fractured approach and you’ll find a remarkable, protracted psychological profile; binge it in the hopes of a more coherent payoff and you’re in for a mighty letdown.
Either way, “Wormwood” manages to channel the most poignant themes at the root of Morris’ work. It’s a ruminative look at an unsolvable crime that nevertheless manages to solve one piece of the puzzle. Eric Olson dedicated his life to uncovering his father’s fate, and while he fell short of achieving that goal, this sprawling tribute to his efforts may be the best ending he could hope for.
“Wormwood” premieres on Netflix December 15.