What does it mean to get close to a killer? Some outstanding true-crime shows have explored the question in their search for the truth and justice. The podcast Serial followed journalist Sarah Koenig through the homicide investigation of Hae Min Lee, in which she spoke often to Lee’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, who’d been convicted of her murder. The HBO mini-series The Jinx centered on filmmaker Andrew Jarecki’s unusual relationship with Robert Durst, an affluent New Yorker suspected of murdering his long-missing wife. Now, Netflix’s Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist digs into the shocking pizza bomber bank robbery that captured headlines back in 2003. In this 4-episode mini-series, Trey Borzillieri makes his directorial debut exploring this twisted tale while befriending its alleged mastermind, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, which makes for a show that’s as fascinating as it is messy.
Evil Genius employs interviews with friends of Wells and Diehl-Armstrong, along with FBI investigators, local police and news reporters. These sources will thoroughly lay the groundwork of a case that seemed stranger than fiction. Episode one leans heavily on them to introduce audiences to the tragedy of Brian Wells, a reportedly nice and friendly resident of Erie, PA, who abruptly turned up at a PNC bank with a cane-gun and a bomb strapped around his neck, demanding $250,000 from a confused clerk. Wells was quickly caught by police, but the explosive meant they kept their distance as the bomb squad was called in. Wells wouldn’t make the wait. The bomb’s detonation killed him on the street while local news teams’ cameras rolled on.
In episode two, Evil Genius introduces us to the unusual suspects of this bizarre bomb plot, meaning Diehl-Armstrong and her former boyfriend William “Bill” Rothstein. Here’s where things get slippery, as Borzillieri and co-director Barbara Schroeder lean into the interviews with Diehl-Armstrong, who the FBI believes is a malicious mastermind, but she insists she is the victim of a spiteful frame job. The show delves into her past, plastering the screen with beguiling photos of a young and beautiful Diehl-Armstrong, a wealthy young woman who was charismatic, intelligent, and—by all accounts—intense. But she was also deeply troubled. Suffering from mental illness, she struggled to maintain close personal relationships and jobs. She repeatedly went to therapists, yet fell into a rough crowd of on-the-lam criminals, frustrated intellectuals, and drug addicts.
There’s a sympathetic softness in Borzillieri’s tone as he recounts these travails. It seems for a spell that he’s fallen for the sob story of a woman who has faced great pain, but has also caused great harm, including the murder of two ex-boyfriends. In voiceover, Borzillieri briefly muses over his fascination with Diehl-Armstrong and why he stayed in touch with her long after her conviction. But it’s not his closeness that makes Evil Genius troubling. It’s his refusal to get personal with that question.
Documentaries have too long been viewed by the public as “objective” filmmaking. Bu the concept of an objective film is wholly absurd. The moment a camera is turned on, choices are made. What is in the frame and what is left out informs the work, and is chosen by a person, who felt this was the best method to tell their chosen story. Personal perspective/subjective opinion is inherent in filmmaking. Documentaries like Serial, The Jinx, and Evil Genius show a raw honesty by revealing the person behind the shaping of its narrative. In Serial, Koenig struggled week to week on whether or not she believed Syed, and confronted her wish that he were innocent versus the likelihood he is not. Through this, she challenged her listeners to weigh their own reason against their emotions when considering the case.
In The Jinx, Jarecki confesses it was an obsession with Durst’s outrageous story that led him to make the based-on-real-events drama All Good Things. And making that movie drew its intimidating inspiration into his life. Despite believing Durst to be a cold-blooded killer, Jarecki couldn’t shake being charmed by this odd figure. And without this intimacy, would the closest thing to a confession Durst has ever offered have happened? Without Jarecki’s vulnerability on display, would that finale have packed such an emotional punch?
When you take in Serial or The Jinx, you don’t only get to know the could-be killer at their center, but also the person shaping the final product. Who Koenig and Jarecki are is as important to the production as who Syed and Durst seem to be. But in Evil Genius, Borzillieri refuses to reveal himself and get vulnerable. He’s rarely on camera, and mostly heard in a hushed and curious voiceover, or in recorded phone calls with Diehl-Armstrong. (Schroeder is perhaps entirely invisible, though she might be the female voice heard asking a question in one interview.) Borzillieri never satisfyingly explains who he is and why this strange crime intrigued him to the point where he spent more than a decade exchanging phone calls and letters with a woman believed to be a master manipulator, unapologetic killer, and evil genius.
With four-episodes, Evil Genius is an enthralling watch for true-crime enthusiasts (AKA murderinos). Even if you’re familiar with the Wells case, Borzillieri unearths shocking new revelations in the final ep that at long last answer some of the mystery’s most vexing questions. Deihl-Armstrong is presented as a complicated character, filled with intelligence, resentment, rage, and pain. Yet this doc won’t absolve her for her sin. Instead, Borzillieri boldly entreats her to finally confront them. But what’s missing here is who he is to this story. Without that, this climactic challenge lacks impact.
Borzillieri is not some omniscient narrator smoothing over the rough spots of an Investigation Discovery series. He is a key figure in this journey. Yet, he wilts from recognizing that and showing himself for context. Without this, Evil Genius is nonetheless a fascinating mini-series, rich with questions, shocking footage, and cutting insights into its crime and criminals. But it’s also laced with an intellectual dishonesty that keeps Borzillieri at a distance and keeps Evil Genius from being great.