Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Review: Evil Genius

Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist **** / *****
Directed by: Barbara Schroeder.
Co-director: Trey Borzillieri.
The new, nearly four hour documentary series Evil Genius from Netflix is undeniably fascinating – the kind of story that has to be real, because if you wrote it as a fiction, no one would believe it. The film takes twists and turns as it documents one of the most bizarre bank robberies imaginable, and the decade plus after when people tried to put all the pieces together, and never quite succeeding. The film certainly raises some ethical question along the way that it never truly deals with – but even that is part of its weird draw.
The crime, in a nutshell, was crazy. Brian Wells was a middle aged pizza delivery man who was called to a remote area where he says a group of black men attacked him, strapped a bomb to his neck, gave him an improvised “cane gun” and a list of bizarrely detailed instructions telling him to rob a bank. If he didn’t do so in a specified time period, the bomb would go off and he would be killed. The robbery itself doesn’t go quite as planned – sure, he walks out with the money, but only $8,000, not the $250,000 he was supposed to get, and the cops descend on him rather quickly and place him under arrest. But there is a matter of that bomb around his neck. Is that real or fake? Is Wells lying about the black men? Is he in on it, or an unwitting victim? As he sits handcuffed in the street, wanting help, the bomb squad isn’t able to get there on time – and he dies. But who was behind the crime?
From there, things get even stranger. One of Brian’s co-workers – another pizza delivery man – dies a few days later, but they don’t really know why. Then there is Bill Rothstein, who will call the cops a month after the robbery to report that he has a body in his freezer of his garage – but he didn’t kill him. Who did? That would be Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, Rothstein’s ex-girlfriend, and the girlfriend on the man in the freezer. How this relates to the pizza bomber case is a tangled web that only gradually gets unwound – and then only partially. But it is true that Diehl-Armstrong is the Evil Genius of the title.
Diehl-Armstrong is the most fascinating person in the film. She is both clearly mentally ill and clearly intelligent. Her paranoid rantings sound crazy, but the way also be part of her act to gain sympathy and leniency in the courts. These aren’t the first deaths she is connected to, although it’s the first time she’s being charged with them. Diehl-Armstrong didn’t give many interviews with the media – no sit down ones anyone, except with Trey Borzillieri, credited as a co-director here. He was fascinated with the case, and started to try and make a documentary about it. For some reason, Diehl-Armstrong chose to talk to him – in massive amounts of phone calls and letters, and for even an on camera interview. Borzillieri becomes an interesting figure in the documentary itself – he acts as the narrator, but for half the series, we don’t really know who he is, or why he’s the one talking. The first two hours try and lay everything out that we can objectively know – relying on news reports and interviews with the officers involved in the investigation. The second half is when we really delve into Diehl-Armstrong, and Borzillieri’s obsession with the case. It’s probably a good thing that the film was directed by Barbara Schroeder, with Borzillieri getting co-director credit. This allows for at least some distance between the subject and the filmmakers to be there – although, arguably, not enough.
Evil Genius is an uncomfortable film to watch in some ways - truly, we didn’t need to see Brian Wells’ death on screen once, let alone twice – even if they did blur it out. Given how his family feels about this whole thing, they could have left that part out (it provides no additional information). But it’s a series that really does dig deep and come up with a disturbing portrait of the people involved – many of whom were brilliant, but lived like they should be on Hoarders. The series doesn’t – because it cannot – answer all the questions in the case. Too many people decided to take secrets to the grave for us to get a complete answer on any of it. But it’s not a film you will forget.

No comments:

Post a Comment