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FX Documentary ‘A Wilderness of Error’ Points the Lens Back at Errol Morris

Writing “A Wilderness of Error” was Morris’s quixotic attempt to dislodge the case from public perception. Morris was friends with one of MacDonald’s attorneys, Harvey Silverglate, and Morris’s dissatisfaction with McGinniss’s and Malcolm’s books led him to 544 Castle Drive on Christmas morning, 1991. In poking through the evidence, Morris, a former private investigator, decided that the crime scene had been horribly managed and the criminal trial “rigged,” as he put it, courtesy of a “good ol’ boy network determined to secure a conviction no matter what.”

Morris shopped it as a film but couldn’t find a buyer, opting ultimately to write a book instead. Smerling was introduced to the book by Jason Blum, of the Blumhouse production company, who had worked with Smerling on the 2015 HBO true-crime series “The Jinx.” Known mostly for horror films, like “Insidious” and “Get Out,” Blum signed on as an executive producer with Smerling, who also directed.

Over five episodes, Smerling surveys an array of colorful characters, and he does it in the style of a Morris documentary: impeccable lighting, a lively score and extensive use of re-enactments to stage conflicting interpretations, as used in Morris’s landmark 1988 film, “The Thin Blue Line.” Many of the major players are not present — the Kassabs and others are dead, including potentially exculpating witnesses — but Smerling pores over the living witnesses and the evidence, as Morris did with his book.

(Notably absent is MacDonald, with whom Smerling said he had scheduled an interview that got abruptly canceled; an official at the federal prison in Cumberland, Md., where MacDonald is incarcerated declined interview requests for this article, citing coronavirus concerns.)

In the constant rehashing of these events, it’s easy to forget that real people were — and still are — affected by the case. MacDonald is still serving time. Colette’s brother, Bob Stevenson, agreed reluctantly to appear in the series, but the experience was visibly painful, his face often streaked with tears.

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