Watching a car crash, train wreck, or other such accident triggers the human fight or flight instinct. It’s why we can’t look away from flashing lights on the highway as tow trucks and emergency vehicles drag away wreckage and tend to the wounded. Looking away goes against programmed behavior. Audiences tuning in to HBO’s four-part miniseries “Allen v. Farrow,” directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, won’t look away, either, but not because they’re watching a train wreck; that metaphor does a great disservice to the series’ nauseating effect. Rather, they’re watching a woman’s tragedy in motion, as retold by Dylan and Mia Farrow, their loved ones, and the authorities and experts who tried her case.
Absent from that list of names, maybe unsurprisingly and deservedly, is Woody Allen, Dylan’s adopted father, and Soon-yi Previn, Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter and Allen’s wife of 23 years, and Moses Farrow, Farrow and Allen’s adopted son. The lack of their participation is deafening, not the least because Moses openly called Dylan a liar and Mia abusive in 2018; without Allen on hand to represent himself, the series is “Allen v. Farrow” in name only. The miniseries could really be boiled down to “Farrow” alone, and reduced to a two-hour film, and trimmed away its excess to cede Dylan the stage, where she frankly belongs given that, despite the enormous cast of names involved in her life and her horrific ordeal, her name is the only one that damn well matters. (And for the record, if you really want to indict Allen, let him talk. Nobody is a worse Allen advocate than Allen himself, as evinced by some of the interview footage and phone call clips used throughout.)
It’s part of nature’s cycle that, once every couple of years, whether provoked by the release of a new Allen film or public statements made by, say, Ronan Farrow, Allen’s crimes against his daughter are cast into the spotlight for half-hearted relitigation, as if there’s anyone left in the world who requires convincing either of Allen’s guilt or Farrow’s supposed dishonesty. Given that nothing supports the latter and overwhelming evidence supports the former despite years of suppressive legal maneuvering, “Allen v. Farrow” ultimately preaches to the choir while possibly fueling the opposition stubbornly hanging onto the idea that Allen is innocent, or that if he’s not quite so innocent then who cares? He’s Woody Allen! Truly, when you’re a star they let you do it.
Should anyone walk away from the series with the impression that they’ve just watched a hit piece, and thus further assured of Allen’s probity, the fault lies squarely with them and not with Kirby and Ziering. To watch “Allen v. Farrow” is to expose one’s soul to the worst mankind has to offer; while the details of Dylan’s abuse aren’t new per se, hearing them afresh and contextualized with Dylan’s own recounting of her traumatic past lends the narrative an especially sobering impact, such that even if you know what Allen put her through you’ll still feel as if you’re hearing about the abuse for the first time. Maybe that’s what’s gained from hearing survivors tell their stories: Proximity with the power to make blood turn to ice in the veins. What Dylan shows the audience by speaking so candidly as she does in “Allen v. Farrow” is bravery, real bravery, the bravery we praise people for in terms of roles they pick and performances they give, which is rarely “brave” at all. It’s artifice. There’s nothing artificial about Dylan’s appearances in the miniseries, and she gives all the reason necessary to watch it.
But “Allen v. Farrow” pads her time on camera with what is for the most part well-trod ground. Remember: This case has been a subject of popular interest since the ’90s, tried in courts and the public eye for almost three decades. On some level, there’s not much we don’t already know (though to be fair, hearing it all contextualized in one place, including the fact that Allen sued Farrow for custody of the kids in the middle of the criminal investigation as a way to distract from the narrative, apply pressure on Farrow, and act vindictively for the accusations, can be especially shocking and brutal). And what we actually don’t know is poorly identified by Dick and Ziering, who got their hands on new documentation, new audio recordings, and new video recordings to buttress the allegations against Allen; perhaps treating their viewers like idiots by underscoring what’s previously gone unseen and unheard would’ve served their work better than treating their viewers like dummies via appallingly heavy-handed filmmaking, as if they need to punctuate Dylan’s account with their own interjections: Slow pans through the Farrow farmhouse in Connecticut or around city blocks in New York City, as if suggesting that Allen is lurking around every corner, ready to pounce like the coke-bottle bespectacled predator that he is.
It’s visual melodrama verging on moral panic over a guy whose reputation as a creepy monster is well-established, and thus requires no embellishment. Dick and Ziering don’t simply present the facts. They also beg the question. Grant that, by now, no doubt should linger in anyone’s mind that Allen did indeed assault Dylan, and any doubts that do linger will honestly be shattered by “Allen v. Farrow” even if you used to be his most staunch supporter. Grant also that absent doubt, no emphasis on his guilt through melodramatic direction is needed and dubious assertions from talking heads should’ve been cut entirely: Farrow family friends up to and including Carly Simon spout insubstantial nonsense that adds nothing to Kirby and Ziering’s examination, and in fact, undermines it, while professional film critics argue that Allen warped his entire filmography around age discrepancies in his screen romances just to groom his audience into tolerating his relationship with Soon-yi.
Is it wrong and icky and gross that Allen pursued her? Of course. Is his work’s obsessive fixation on relationships between men in their 40s and women in their 20s uncomfortable at best? Absolutely. Are culture journalists and members of Farrows’ unbiased support system qualified to conduct high-end psychological reading? Not in the slightest, and when “Allen v. Farrow” casually airs armchair analysis, it lessens and undercuts its authority over the material. But if the series suffers from its own pretense, it’s sustained by Dylan’s unflappable testimony. Some people are okay not knowing the truth. They’re content to look the other way. “Allen v. Farrow” justifies itself when all anyone can look at is Dylan, but so frequently undercuts (and even debases) itself, and her, through overbearingly crummy technique. [C-]