Unraveled has the thrust of a great American noir or black comedy. It concerns a man so obsessed with wealth and status that he ironically finds himself trapped in a lush high rise eating food purchased using his son’s bar mitzvah fund. But the man is inescapably real, and the butt of this comedy’s punchline is ultimately the typical working-class American citizen. Just days before Bernie Madoff was arrested for perpetrating financial schemes that would help to cripple this country financially, the prominent, celebrity-schmoozing NYC attorney Marc Dreier was nabbed for committing an elaborate series of loan frauds that netted his firm something like $700 million. Dreier’s scheme, which essentially involved robbing Peter to pay Paul so he could rob Paul again down the road, was a house of cards that eventually collapsed as he grew more confident in his schemes and more desperate in his need to expand, expand, expand.
Unraveled is appealingly pared, mostly consisting of interviews with Dreier in his now mostly empty penthouse while he’s under house arrest awaiting his sentencing. The film opens two months out from Dreier’s day in court and follows him as he negotiates plea deals with defense attorneys and discusses tactics that could hopefully keep his almost certainly severe prison time to a minimum. Dreier, with the pragmatism we expect of an attorney, particularly of ill repute, explains that the length of the prison term matters because it dictates the security level of the prison chosen for him to serve his sentence. If Dreier gets 30-plus years, he could find himself in a considerably uncomfortable position, and if he gets 20 or less he can most likely negotiate a stretch in the kind of country club that sports living conditions superior to the lifestyles of most working-class people.
So, no, this film doesn’t present us with a sympathetic protagonist, and that’s precisely why it’s so fascinating. We’ve grown accustomed to any number of understandably outraged documentaries that throw facts and figures at us in an effort to underline the severity of corporate and government corruption, but with the occasional exception, such as Client 9: The Fall of Elliot Spitzer, we’re rarely allowed to experience these stories from the inside-out. Like the great Tyson or El Sicario, Room 164, the doc lets its subject talk for extended stretches that reveal more than the subject probably intended. Dreier voices the usual half-assed defenses (the worst is his assertion that the collapse of his marriage denied him a moral compass with which to see his misbehavior properly), but he also reveals a truth that unites the white-collar sharks with the rest of us: a mutual craving for power as a route to sex, bling, and glamour, which is, in turn, a route to the self-respect everyone is ultimately after. Dreier, a short stocky man who sounds uncannily like Martin Scorsese, clearly has a need to compensate for something, and he had the cunning, opportunity, and lack of scruples to temporarily achieve that compensation. One of Dreier’s passing remarks haunts the film: “If my personal life had been more gratifying I probably would’ve felt less of a need to reach for something else.” While that confession reeks of self-pity and pop-psych banality, it’s also, for most of us in one way or another, undeniably true.
Director Marc H. Simon, who works in a superbly disciplined, straightforward style, uncovers a number of other ironies, particularly when Dreier says that he finds reading the world news depressing as none of it is relevant to him anymore—a sentiment that reflects the feelings of impotence that currently plague much of the country. Dreier is undeniably insulated as only a once-rich man can be (at one point he casually mentions the universal pitfalls of renting a house in the Hamptons), but Unraveled also follows him as he tries to enjoy the pleasures that most any middle-class citizen takes for granted, such as a good bagel or pizza with his son, or sports on the deluxe TV. The film, without cheapening Dreier’s wrongdoings, humanizes him, and at one point he says something that’s undeniably on-target: We relish the girls and limos and Park Avenue offices of these guys, and secretly at least half-respect the cojones it takes to pull these scams, while indulging in self-righteous fury when it finally directly affects us.
Unraveled uses a gimmick that could be showy in a different context: There are occasionally animated passages, rendered in melancholy gray and blue, that dramatize some of Dreier’s past antics. Besides functioning as a kind of symbolic illustration of Dreier’s id, this stunt allows for one authentically startling collision of word and image. We see an animated Dreier as he as takes the elevator up to the 18th floor of his Park Avenue office, as the real Dreier tells us of the periodic dread he would feel as his scams mounted. Then the elevator opens and the man sees DREIER LLP in all caps against an impossibly chic wall behind a gorgeous receptionist sitting behind a perfect all-glass desk, and we can palpably feel that dread evaporate until the next potential elevator ride. In those few seconds is every nuance of the American Dream and its accompanying nightmare.