BINGE-R #71: Wormwood + Good Time
Streaming Service: Netflix
Availability: All six episodes now streaming
Everything matters in Wormwood, a fascinating documentary series about a murder that cannot be defined, let alone solved. During the extensive interviews with Eric Olson, whose father Frank Olson was a scientist working on classified projects for the CIA whose death in 1953 after he fell from a hotel room window has been shrouded in controversy, the clock behind Eric is paused just after 2.30, which was the approximate a.m. time when Frank died. The gesture is both an acknowledgment and an indictment: it’s when Frank died and, as you come to realise, when Eric’s life permanently paused.
Wormwood is not a cold case investigation of a little known crime. Frank Olson’s death is steeped in history, especially after 1975 when the CIA confirmed he had been dosed with the psychedelic drug LSD as part of an experiment, and that it led to his suicide; then U.S. President Gerald Ford met the Olson family and personally apologised. The initial episodes explore that scenario, complete with smoky period recreations where Frank is played with jittery discomfort by Peter Sarsgaard, but then with Eric’s guidance that scandalous but closed narrative is torn down and replaced by an altogether more conspiratorial theory.
The stories that we choose to believe, and the traps in perception they create for protagonists and onlookers alike, has long fascinated Wormwood’s director Errol Morris, whose key features such as 1988’s The Thin Blue Line and 2003’s The Fog of War have parsed contentious official versions of history. Here, often seen sitting opposite Eric Olson in profile interview shots, Morris layers Hamlet riffs and Cold War paranoia through the past and present – he swaps perspectives and mixes tracks, so that a testimony by Frank’s superior, Lt. Col. Vincent Ruwet, is first seen as testimony to Congress, then retold via a recreation set in the Olson family home.
Morris wants you to question what you’re seeing, as Eric has questioned everything he’s been told. The son is the type of obsessive, offbeat character Morris has long been drawn to, complete with an eye for detail; “he loved folk dancing, raising goats, and organic gardening,” Eric says one of his father’s murky colleagues, who he met in retirement. The episodes are slowly assured in their pacing, so that the storytelling rhythms become immersive. Morris, you eventually realise, is as interested in Eric’s fate as that of his father. He can’t quite provide a definitive end for either Olson, but to just fall short makes for deeply absorbing viewing.
In Brief: CLAWS S1 (Stan): Set in a nail salon holding on at a rundown Florida strip mall, this American comic-drama comes with a thick layer of excess: Desna Simms (Niecy Nash) and her staff at Nail Artisan are full of oversized affirmation, even when they’re helping launder cash for a local crime syndicate’s OxyContin prescription scam. But once you settle in to this banger-fuelled series, you realise that for the women the attitude is a front, a survival technique in the face of rampant disadvantage. It’s their male overlords, such as Desna’s wannabe gangster boss, Roller (Jack Kesy), and his real gangster boss, the garish Uncle Daddy (Dean Norris, breaking big from Breaking Bad) who have the luxury of grotesque behaviour and selfish advancement. Eliot Laurence’s series is both pungent and verging on soap opera, but it moves fast and makes a virtue of female solidarity.
>> Second Seasons: Two Netflix series have just added new batches of episodes, so if you’re intrigued by either you can read my 2017 reviews for the debut seasons of Easy [full review here] and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency [full review here] for extra information.
Good Time (Netflix, 2017, 101 minutes): Given malignant momentum by the score from electronic musician Oneohtrix Point Never, Good Time was underground New York filmmaking siblings Josh and Benny Safdie’s take on the crime thriller: a lean and tightly held long day’s journey into night marshalled around a corrosively sharp performance from Robert Patttinson. As Connie Nikas, a small-time hustler who ropes his hulking, mentally-challenged brother Nick (Benny Safdie) into a bank heist, the former Twilight heartthrob is a fast evolving virus, reading and reacting to every situation with such feral need that the camera’s instincts to stay close to him feels like the only way to hang on. He makes the Safdie’s mix of documentary-like street realism and sudden chaos cruelly compelling.
New on Netflix: The Coen Brothers’ 1950s Hollywood comedy Hail, Caesar! (2016, 106 minutes) is a touch too dry, but the guest turns – from Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, and Alden Ehrenreich – are tops; Restrepo (2010, 93 minutes) is a harshly unadorned war documentary, gauging the boredom and battles of a U.S. company’s tour of duty in an Afghanistan mountain outpost.
New on SBS On Demand: Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner (2014, 143 minutes) is a gruff, telling biopic about the final decades of the 19th century English artist J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall), who famously painted the light but left darkness in his wake.
New on Stan: The Assassin (2015, 105 minutes) is an exquisite martial-arts drama from revered Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien set in ninth century China, where gifted assassin Nie (Shu Qi) is ordered to kill the lord she was once betrothed to; prime American idiocy with Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights (2006, 104 minutes).
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