Director: Marc H. Simon
If not for Bernie Madoff, Marc Dreier would likely be the name presently most synonymous with modern-era, American white collar swindling, to the tune of $750 million in fraud. The well packaged documentary “Unraveled” provides a fascinating look at the psychology and rationalizations of such a criminal mastermind, unfolding in a series of reflective interviews over the last two months of Dreier’s house arrest prior to criminal sentencing, in the gilded cage of his Upper East Side penthouse. If the cinematic treatment of crime is too often distilled to black-and-white morality in the name of entertainment, this engaging movie is awash in grey — about contemptible acts arising from unique opportunities. As such, while not at all exonerating Dreier, it raises uncomfortable ancillary questions about both the grander state of responsibilities and priorities in the United States, as well as a lack of cultural shame.
The basic framework of “Unraveled” is certainly found in the more formal sit-down interviews to which Dreier submits, recounting in chronological fashion some of the specifics of his rise and fall. In 1998 he started his own law firm, and first dabbled in fraud in 2002, forging a series of documents and promissory notes to hedge fund managers to obtain ever-increasing lines of credit under the names of richer clients, business associates and real estate developers like Sheldon Solow. But the random snippets of day-to-day life (his phone time limited, Dreier counsels his son over smoking issues in his summer rental house in the Hamptons) and confessions of boredom and creeping depression (“I read the newspaper, but almost everything in the world is irrelevant to me”) are just as revelatory, if not even more so. Under armed guard, and monitored with an ankle bracelet, this former jet-setting titan of industry is forced to watch his freedom on a countdown clock, unsure of whether the government’s requested 145-year term might effectively end his chances at ever being released on parole.
Director Marc H. Simon (no relation to this review’s author) has unique insight and access to his subject, given the fact that he used to work for Dreier’s law firm. But he’s not merely some opportunistic, point-and-shoot hack trading on access to squeeze out a screen credit. After working as a legal counselor on a variety of New York indies, Simon made the transition to director with 2008’s “Nursery University,” a nonfiction look at parents’ attempts to get their kids into “feeder preschools” which tout their track records in eventually placing kids in Ivy League colleges.
Simon exhibits smart instincts about how to piece together his narrative, eschewing talking head contextualization to give his movie a more cogent center and strongly felt identification. One doesn’t have to like Dreier or even feel sorry for him in order to feel and appreciate the tightened screws of the movie’s focus. “Unraveled” takes what on the surface could be a complex scheme and, by funneling it through Dreier himself, makes it easily comprehensible both in and of itself and as a macro example of the sort of deregulation mania that led to the American financial collapse of 2008.
“Unraveled” isn’t visually staid and boring, either. Using cinematography in a manner reminiscent of if not similar to “The Kid Stays In the Picture,” Simon also makes his space come alive in unique fashion, recreating in contrasting fashion Dreier’s $10.4 million apartment both before and after the seizure of his assets. This isn’t senseless or emotionally empty showing off, either, since Dreier also talks about using both charities and his vast art collection as leverage, to project an image and attract more clients for his bogus notes and schemes.
Still, the window into Dreier’s mind is “Unraveled”‘s chief point of interest, and it’s a doozy. He is contrite, and says all the right things, but in discussions with his lawyers is also seen wishing to slightly qualify his deceit, based on the number and type of victims. What punishment does Dreier “deserve,” then? An early admission, throwaway but perhaps telling, about toiling and feeling resentment while working for (richer) clients, back before he ever committed fraud, is likely to spark equally divisive thoughts about his make-up. But part of the beauty and effectiveness of “Unraveled” is that, despite the intimacy of its portrayal, it doesn’t cheaply advocate, it merely presents a case and lets the audience be its jury.
For more information, visit www.UnraveledTheFilm.com.
Written by: Brent Simon