On the heels of "This Is Not a Film" comes a second and far more resonant house arrest documentary, Marc Simon's "Unraveled," about the former New York litigator Marc Dreier, who funded the growth of his eponymous law firm with an exponential series of forgeries and impersonations, ending in his arrest and conviction on eight counts of securities and wire fraud. In 2009, between Dreier's guilty plea and sentencing, he was allowed to spend his last two months of freedom in his stripped-down Upper East Side penthouse, under armed guard and electronic monitoring, with only court-approved visitors and one landline.
Here, before bare walls that had once been covered with Warhols and Lichtensteins, Simon shows us in Dreier the trapped-rat, unbearably heavy weight not so much of house arrest per se (it's obviously infinitely preferable to what's coming) but of its pervasive and inescapable foreboding of impending doom. Dreier eats ravenously, watches Mets games with his son, Spencer, and reads the newspaper fitfully, too preoccupied to concentrate meaningfully on anything but the long prison term ahead. (Spencer pays for the food out of his bar mitzvah money.)
Dreier makes a compelling interviewee as well as a subject. It's not just that he's highly intelligent and well-spoken, as you'd expect, or that he confesses his crimes unreservedly and in detail (you sense there's a therapeutic, almost cathartic, quality to his admissions). Rather, he lays bare the profound guilt and regret he feels every minute of every day, the shame of not being able to provide for his children, of ruining the family name, of disappointing his parents. ("Let's just say that I have caused my mother a lot of pain," Dreier says through pursed lips, "and leave it at that.") Almost physically, we see him become a shell of his former self.
Simon uses a series of animations to show how Dreier committed his crimes, which became increasingly brazen and untenable, involving, in one instance, asking for a business card from a client's employee and, moments later, meeting with hedge-fund investors in the client's conference room while posing as that same employee. These low-tech sequences have some of the same look and expressiveness of Richard Linklater's "Waking Life," which made my top-ten list in 2001, and in their simplicity crystallize the pitiable amateurishness and desperation of Dreier's out-of-control scheme.
Does Dreier engage in rationalization or diminish the gravity of his offenses? No more than could humanly be expected. "Unraveled" is no pity party, let alone an apologia. There's some merit to Dreier's assertion that those who never cross the line may be motivated by fear of getting caught or simple lack of opportunity as much as by fundamental virtue. But Dreier drew his own line to cross; while we get some sense of what may have motivated him psychologically, we're never asked or tempted to excuse him.
The few permitted visitors include Dreier's defense attorneys, who discuss with him their approach to the sentencing hearing. (Mere days before Dreier's court date, Bernie Madoff got 150 years.) We also meet his prison consultant, who describes the conditions Dreier will encounter and what will fill his days and nights. These are harrowing, unthinkable conversations. But perhaps through the abject humiliations of incarceration Dreier will find some measure of inner freedom from the personal demons that led him so far astray.