Marc Simon’s latest documentary, Unraveled, delves into the mind of Marc Dreier, an attorney convicted of fraud. Overshadowed by the Bernie Madoff scandal, Dreier’s story, though in the press, might still be news to viewers. What’s most unusual is Simon’s access to Dreier for the weeks he is under house arrest prior to his sentencing.
House arrest is a drudgery, even in the swanky, New York apartment of a multimillionaire. The breathtaking views and clean, modern decor do not soften the monotony and claustrophobia that pervade the film. I frequently wanted to escape myself. While the limited locations do not make for great cinematography or compelling visuals, the true action takes place within the mind. Drier’s confinement results in some unexpected introspection. Initially, he seems open to both confessing his guilt and being apologetic for the catastrophic outcomes. But, as he begins to examine his own motives, his instinct to justify and explain away his own culpability takes hold. Drier goes on to say that he was not a unique criminal, postulating that many people, if given the opportunity, would have also manipulated the system for their own gain. Witnessing a bright and articulate man make excuses for his fall is uncomfortable, but it is also valuable to see the ease with which self deception and justification can take hold. We know he is lying to himself in order to live with his massive guilt, the weight of which is too much for this weak man to bear.
Listening to Dreier’s justifications, I could not help but be reminded of a small child arguing with his parent. In the face of an impending punishment, a child will attempt to justify their misbehavior, frequently citing that other children get away with such infractions. And yet, as a parent, I know you cannot be swayed but such arguments. In a child’s mind this seems unfair, ‘Why does so and so get to when I don’t?’ The child does not fully comprehend the consequences of his actions or the validity of the parent’s rule. Similarly, Dreier bucks all moral authority when he commits his frauds and goes on to rebel against the rule of law when he attempts to explain away his crimes.
Watching a grown man maneuver through the world with the ethical mentality of a child is discouraging, and this disappointment is magnified when we see the great wealth and success he was able to attain. His schemes were never complex, but they worked nonetheless.
It’s no surprise that there are people like Dreier who are ruled by their desire for wealth and power. What is most unsettling about Dreier’s story is not the peek into his mentality, but the implications they have on our view of humanity. We imagine that it’s difficult to get away with fraud, and think of a complex, interwoven Hollywood film, but it didn’t take a mastermind to manipulate the lending system, just a proud and greedy individual. It is alarming that such a bumbling and obvious deception could go on for as long as it did. And in a sense, Dreier’s supposition that someone else in his position would have also seized the opportunity seems accurate. Is it really that easy to steal millions? Still, Dreier is unique in some sense; it may have been easy to be tempted, but it takes a rare person to live with the weight of such guilt after the fact.
Facing the possibility of life in prison, Dreier has moments of self reflection and clarity. His musings, though insightful at times, also pose a question. Should the perpetrators of crimes be given their own soap box? Does the projection of their story somehow diminish the suffering they inflicted on others? Even as I experienced moments of sympathy for Dreier, I also felt confused; I didn’t want to see the human side of a person it would be easier to dismiss as greedy and corrupt, but that is exactly where Simon takes the viewer.
Unraveled, while valuable for its privileged access to the subject, is missing the counterpoint. While I was absorbed in Dreier’s storytelling, it was not sufficient to hear his side alone, especially because his voice was so inflated with self deception.