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'The Octopus Murders' Review: The Absorbing, Unhinged Investigation into the Death of Danny Casolaro

By Alison Lanier | TV | March 8, 2024 |

By Alison Lanier | TV | March 8, 2024 |


Netflix’s American Conspiracy: The Octopus Murders is a vast and compelling story of a conspiracy theory—but more so about the process of being consumed by the fascination of an extraordinary mystery.

The mystery stems from the death of Danny Casolaro in the early ’90s. Danny was a writer who devoted years to uncovering an enormous conspiracy of dark money and influence, linking United States intelligence with organized crime, weapons smuggling, drug trafficking, and a laundry list of mind-boggling manipulations and networks all the way up to the Reagan White House and across the most high-profile scandals of national and international politics. It all started when the governments essentially stole a revolutionary piece of networking software from its parent company in the 1980s. And it explodes from there.

Danny transformed from a personable suburban dad with a tight-knit web of friends and family into a man consumed by paranoia as he traced conspiracy tips and leads. He was bringing it all together in a massive and explosive book. But before he finished the project, he was found dead in a hotel bathroom, his wrists slashed repeatedly so deep that the tendons were severed. It was ruled a suicide, which the responding EMT, and just about everyone besides the police, largely dispute.

Fast forward: New York Times photojournalist Christian Hansen picks up the trail and retraces Danny’s investigation in the early 2010s, reinterviewing sources and trying to validate and confirm the stories decades later. His friend David Treitz is along on the ride, as cameraman and documentary director recording the journey. The result is a story so enormous and convoluted it can actually be exhausting to absorb as a viewer. I tried to get some sewing done while watching and ended up putting it down to try to keep track of connections. Suddenly a conspiracy board with some yarn and pushpins becomes both tempting and eminently useful.

There are piles of uncanny parallels between the parallel investigations. Christian connects with sources whose interactions with Danny he’s studied in notes, rebuilding these relationships with thoroughly fascinating but dubious characters. Conversations and claims are repeated across decades as stories shift and perspectives change. Christian looks incredibly like a young Danny-to the point where one of Danny’s longtime friends, during an interview, points it out with some level of awe and discomfort. That recognition leads into another one of my favorite popular maneuvers in true crime docs nowadays—getting meta about their scene reconstruction, as David directs his friend into being Danny for the reenactments. It’s pointedly bizarre.

Some connections feel convincing, and some very flimsy, and when a CIA link is revealed to be a lady who asked around a bowling alley it casts a long shadow of unbelievability on other, more solid connections, like eyewitness accounts of another man entering Danny’s hotel room the day he was killed or government-orchestrated weapons smuggling off a Native reservation in California.

It’s easy to slide down the rabbit hole of conspiracies, and it’s a particularly interesting exercise in being convinced of something — especially in our current political climate, where huge swathes of people self-select their online realities and news sources. To paraphrase Tim O’Brien, mythomaniacs live in a world of their own creation. And the tools to do so are easier than ever to access, in a digital “post-truth” era.

But the fascinating thing about The Octopus Murders is that there is a very slippery, very intangible divide between what research appears to show and the layers of story spun around the facts. There’s a truth to get at in the end—but what truth you arrive at is a matter of volition rather than objective certainty. At one point, Christian looks into the camera, pulls at his hair, and wonders if absolutely everyone involved in this is insane or if he is.

It’s an absorbing and somewhat unhinged binge-watch, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t still thinking about it days later.

American Conspiracy: The Octopus Murders is now streaming on Netflix.