If someone were to list the elements in Jessica Yu’s excellent new documentary—puppets, Euripides, four men recounting their youths lived in extremis—you’d be forgiven for expecting some kind of Robert Bly–convened drum circle. Yet Yu (the director of a doc on Henry Darger, another study of excess) displays such keen instincts for assembling these disparate parts that viewers will be completely engrossed in the narratives of her subjects and just may wish to brush up on Bacchae.
Mawkish music or the insufferable terminology of pop psychology is often deployed when “tales of the human condition” unspool; how refreshing—and that much more ennobling—that ancient Greek is heard instead in Yu’s film, as wooden rod puppets perform during the interstitial moments. Protagonist is blessed with a quartet of amazing, effortlessly articulate raconteurs—the most excitable one, who recapitulates his obsession with martial arts as a teen, being the director’s husband. He’s joined by an ex-ex-gay, a bank robber turned journalist—and an erstwhile German terrorist who will be familiar to anyone who saw Barbet Schroeder’s Terror’s Advocate earlier this year. Hans Joachim Klein, a former comrade of Carlos the Jackal who renounced violence, gives the most stirring account of his life, which he fittingly concludes by paraphrasing Socrates: “All I know is that I don’t know.”