Crime stories are never meant to be easy. The ones that end up the subject of documentaries like the new Netflix series “Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist” get reframed as pieces of entertainment, largely by virtue of the unknowable. One of the biggest variables is how the storytelling approach of a series or film takes something unthinkable and gives whoever’s watching it a better sense of meaning beyond what transpired. There’s a certain level of frustration that often comes with watching these, a desire to know motive or arrive at some sense of justice that a show isn’t guaranteed to provide.
“Evil Genius” is vexing in an entirely different way. In telling the story behind a 2003 incident in Erie, PA in which pizza delivery man Brian Wells was used as part of a twisted, convoluted bank robbery scheme, this series attempts to piece together a fraught chain of events that lead to that day. It’s a saga that involves death and obsession and illness and rejection: all the puzzle pieces you’d expect to go into a story befitting this one’s title.
The problem is that to pursue the story behind this particular bank robbery means committing to examining subjects at the center of it, who are fundamentally at odds with what a doc like this is usually trying to do. Part of the paradox of “Evil Genius” is recognizing that it’s trying to wedge an unusual case into a familiar framework.
Whether it’s the way the four-part series follows investigators’ deconstruction of the timeline, the perfunctory introduction of different potential accessories in the case, or the steady return to the same archival footage and mugshots, the show takes a conventional approach when it’s clear this story is demanding something different. “Evil Genius” wants you to be shocked when it introduces new layers to the case, but for a saga that’s billed as something wild and unbelievable from the start, the fact that this story goes deeper is rarely a surprise. As it becomes clear that the surprises are most of what it has to offer, this becomes more of a strict viewing exercise.
“Evil Genius” spends a majority of its time on Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong and Bill Rothstein, the two people who eventually became persons of interest in the Wells case. One of the reasons this investigation has persisted in various forms for the better part of 15 years is that these individuals (and maybe a few inside their respective circles) fostered a circuitous account of what happened on that August afternoon and who was responsible. Covering the tracks of the FBI agents and local law enforcement tasked with solving an escalating series of crimes only follows that same circular process.
Even though “Evil Genius” uses many of these agents as guideposts to understanding how these investigations played out the way that they did, the rest is a scattershot approach to exploring the various offshoots of the story. When a true crime show returns to its own evidence wall graphic, it’s usually a means for showing where a focused part of the show’s attention plays out in the bigger mystery. “Evil Genius” takes the idea of an interconnected web and decides to follow every thread at once, bouncing back and forth between storylines with a criminally short attention span. There’s something to be discovered in this case, but the show never stays in one place long enough to get a good sense of what it’s actually presenting.
A bevy of fruitful topics make surface-level appearances along the way. Diehl-Armstrong’s mental health is often commented on, but to discredit what she’s saying instead of as a means for examining how it built her role in all this. There’s an undercurrent of jurisdictional arguments between federal, state, and local agents, all trying to stake out their part in finding a solution. And aside from conversations with local news reporters and a few overhead drone shots of highways, there’s almost no sense of the city where this all transpired.
There’s also a definite conversation to be had in how the media helped shape public perception. A notorious Fox News host comes in to bring some media frontier justice to this case — by the time he arrives, “Evil Genius” has sowed so much doubt, it’s easy to see how he could makes things look like even more of a debacle. A montage of news outlet reactions in the final episode is the closest “Evil Genius” comes to taking a look at how people outside the suspects and the investigators themselves shaped the conversation around guilt and innocence. Even that feels like a slapped-on segment to pad the areas around the unstable people at this story’s center who were trying to divert attention elsewhere.
The series’ biggest weakness is when it tries to take on its own parallel investigation, tying its overall value to some exclusive breaks in the case. It’s not impossible for an effective documentary to have one of the filmmakers play a pivotal role in the case itself, but “Evil Genius” is a perfect example of why that’s almost always a detriment to the product itself. Co-director Trey Borzillieri’s disembodied voice hovers over the first two episodes, before the series finally explains his connection. As the number of people who can actually speak to the truth of that day of the heist dwindles over time, “Evil Genius” resorts more to voiceover and on-screen text to fill in the gaps that surveillance footage and interview segments cannot.
Along the way, the series does feature some effective tools for creating an uncertain aura around what happened. The slow dissolve of Diehl-Armstrong’s face from guarded smile to emotionless expression in the opening credits is a disarming intro. When “Evil Genius” backs off the ever-present ominous score underlining each successive development in the case, it lets some of the more human moments come through. (One video sequence showing Rothstein guiding officials through his house after a major arrest in the case says more about him than any of the other interviews do.) When the show finally arrives at its official account of how the lead-up to Brian Wells’ involvement played out, it’s a deeply unsettling part of the finale.
If only the nearly three hours that led to that moment had the kind of focus which would make that climactic peak feel like an earned conclusion to a long-existing mystery. Instead, the air of manipulation and uncertainty the series seems so intent on creating only ends up undercutting its own pursuits. The kind of ambiguities that come with a story like this can be the thing that makes it stand out, leaving the audience to consider what’s been left undetermined. But for a series that features, by its own description, a “master manipulator,” “Evil Genius” feels more like a confused, unwitting pawn than an adversary worthy of taking on the challenge to uncover the truth.
“Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist” is now available to stream on Netflix.
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