Friday, April 3, 2015

TV Miniseries Review: The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst

The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst
Directed by:  Andrew Jarecki.
Written by: Andrew Jarecki & Marc Smerling & Zachary Stuart-Pontier.
Featuring: Robert Durst.

Robert Durst is a very creepy guy. It doesn’t take long into his first onscreen appearance in Andrew Jarecki’s 6 part, 5 hour television miniseries documentary about the man to figure that out. Here is a man who was born with all the advantages in life – the oldest son of one of the wealthiest men in New York City, who made his money in real estate. He has so much money can he pretty much do whatever he wants – and if that’s nothing, then so be it. Durst has admitting to killing one man – Morris Black – but claims it was in self-defense (and a jury in Texas agrees) and is suspected in two other murder – that of his wife, Kathie, who disappeared more than 30 years ago and has still not been found, and that of one of his best friends, Susan Berman, the daughter of a mobster, who ended up shot, execution style, in her some back in 2000 – just as the New York Police and D.A. were about to interview her as part of their renewed investigation into Kathie Durst’s disappearance. Many believe that Durst, who was in California at the time, killed her to keep her quiet about what she knew about Kathie Durst. Robert Durst comes across in the interviews that make up much of The Jinx (and almost all of its best parts) almost how you expect a spoiled, entitled, probable three-time murderer to come across. He seems emotionless much of the time, defensive, dismissive, and angry. He’s undeniably smart – and seemingly wants to prove just how smart he is. It’s not enough that if he has did kill Kathie, they have found no real evidence of it in decades of digging – just rumor, conjecture and speculation. Or that if he did in fact kill Susan Berman, the only thing anyone had been able to prove before this miniseries is that he was in the same state as her when it happened (and as Durst points out, California is a big state). Or that Durst was somehow able to kill Morris Black, cut his body up and throw it into a bay in various garbage bags and one suitcase, and STILL get acquitted of murder by pleading self-defense, which under Texas law the prosecution than has to disprove, which they cannot do (possibly because they never can find the head, which has the bullet wound). The fact that Durst has perhaps gotten away with murder three times would suggest he is very smart (and yes, the money helps too) – but Durst almost reminds me of Dustin Hoffman’s character in Wag the Dog. He wants the credit.

In 2010, director Andrew Jarecki – then best known for Capturing the Friedmans one of the best documentaries of the 2000s, decided to make All Good Things – a feature film about Durst, although with the names changed. Despite the fact that it had Ryan Gosling playing the Durst role, the film ended up mostly being forgettable (I had to dig back to find my review to recall much of the details of the film – basically that I liked it, but didn’t love it. It is basically a less successful version of Foxcatcher, truth be told). For whatever reason, after the film came out, Robert Durst reached out to Jarecki – and wanted to tell his side of the story. Durst has been a tabloid staple for years, but has never given interviews. As his lawyers tell him – even in the course of The Jinx – he has nothing to gain from it. But damn it all, Durst wants to tell his story anyway – apparently suffering from the delusional belief that if people could just hear him tell it, they would believe it. The opposite is really true. Jarecki fills The Jinx with all sorts of talking heads – cops, lawyers, friends and family of the victims, and almost all of them will tell you that they think Durst is guilty. Jarecki will obsessively pour over every piece of evidence against Durst – even some that really are not evidence at all (sorry, just because Kathie used to the word “Cadaver” when she had one at medical school doesn’t mean that Durst wrote the now infamous Cadaver letter as one interview subject implies). But what convinced me that Durst was probably guilty was the man himself in the interviews – and yes, that was long before the shocking ending that turned The Jinx into a cultural phenomenon.

But let’s back up for a second here – as I am getting ahead of myself a little bit. The series is broken up into 6 parts, each running around 45 minutes long – and they aired on HBO, one week at a time starting in February. I didn’t watch the series as it went along – a little too busy – although I was interested, and I ended up binge watching it over a couple of nights last week. The first segment doesn’t start at the beginning – but almost, really, at the end –with the body of Morris Black being found in Galveston Bay, Texas. This episode concerns the twisted discovery, and the police investigation that followed, that lead (very quickly) back to Robert Durst. Jarecki and company then cycle back to tell us more about Durst, and his checkered history. He is barely in that first episode – Jarecki is slowly building up his appearance in the film – but he leaves an impression when he does.

Over the rest of episodes, Jarecki slowly expands his view on Durst – slowly revealing information, and basically building his case against him. Jarecki eventually says that he likes Durst, and wasn’t sure if he was guilty or not when he started the film (which is odd, since All Good Things definitely paints Durst as a murderer – but I suppose it leaves a little ambiguity about it), but at some point in the series, you can definitely tell he moves from filmmaker to prosecutor. The film has been compared to that other true crime cultural phenomenon from last year – Serial – and it’s true to a certain extent, as both Jarecki and Koenig use fictional style storytelling, complete with shocking twists and reveals, in crafting their projects. Serial also had something that The Jinx does not though – and that actual evidence to dig into: Jay’s testimony, cell phone records, witness statements, etc. The shocking thing about The Jinx is just how little evidence there is against Durst, although how much Jarecki makes of what there is. Consider one sequence when Jarecki uses a few collect phone calls from New Jersey to the Durst offices in the days following Kathie’s disappearance. Through his editing, and various talking heads, Jarecki leads the audience to believe that these are evidence of Durst’s guilt – when if you actually pay attention they really aren’t. What he has is a few collect phone calls from New Jersey to the Durst office (the only real “fact” he has). The police say that witness from the Durst office (who we do not see) say only Robert and his father Seymour ever made collect phone calls to the office. Durst himself admits he used to call the office collect all the time – because he didn’t want to pay for the calls, but says he did not make those phone calls. The area in New Jersey that the phone calls originated from are apparently a known dumping ground for mobsters – and Durst’s friend, Susan Berman, was the daughter of a mobster, so she would know this (never mind the fact that Susan was from Vegas, not New Jersey, and she herself claimed she didn’t known her father was a gangster until she was in college), therefore so would Durst, so he must have been there disposing of her body. The only problem with all of this is we have no idea where Kathie Durst’s body is – it could be there, it could be anywhere. And we have no idea who actually made those phone calls. I don’t think the whole thing even rises to the level of circumstantial evidence.

I am not suggesting that Jarecki is trying to railroad an innocent man – for one thing, I think that Durst is probably guilty of all the killings he is suspected of. But I do think that The Jinx would be better if it questioned, a little bit more, some of what it presents. Serial went back and forth on whether or not Adnan Syed was guilty or not guilty, and it’s more than possible at the end of the series to think either way. Sarah Koenig thinks he isn’t guilty – I think he probably is, and Serial benefitted from having another voice at times, like the producer who in the final episode of Serial lays out a pretty damning case against Syed – telling us all the coincidences and things that would have to be true for him not to be involved. The Jinx however plays like the prosecutor’s case against Durst, and then it’s cross examination of him.

I have some other qualms about the series as well. After watching the film, I went back and re-watched its major visual inspiration for the first time in years – Errol Morris’ brilliant true crime doc The Thin Blue Line (1988) – one of the greatest of all documentaries, and probably the best true crime one ever made. Like Morris, Jarecki uses re-enactments and montages to break up the monotony of a series of talking heads. Unlike Morris, Jarecki doesn’t do it particularly well – Morris gives us re-enactments that are both haunting images in and of themselves (the “malted” slowly spiraling to the ground, the reflection of a Burger King logo on a police car), and valuable sources of information as well – showing us the re-enactments from different people’s point of view. Jarecki basically uses these re-enactments and interludes to juice the drama of the proceeding, and often it crosses the line into pure, manipulative melodrama (all the slow motion shoots of Susan Berman getting shot – and her dogs walking through the blood. Morris could have made those work – Jarecki cannot).

The final episode was particularly problematic for me as well – and that’s only partly because of the timeline issues, where Jarecki implies that an arrest of Durst for trespassing lead him back to the filmmakers for a second interview, even though that arrest was made months after that interview was already conducted (apparently – Jarecki and company aren’t talking, but his seems to be the prevailing wisdom you can look up elsewhere if you’re so inclined). Perhaps it’s just personal bias, but over the years I have grown tired of documentary filmmakers making the story about themselves and not their subjects (unless they do so in intelligent ways, which actually expand the scope of the documentary, like Claude Lanzmann in last year’s The Last of the Unjust). Almost the entire final episode of The Jinx though is about Jarecki – and his quest to get Durst back on camera, and everything he goes through to get him. The episode is redeemed however – almost wholly – by that haunting final interview, when Jarecki confronts Durst with the “Cadaver” letter, and his own handwriting, which seems to be very, very similar at least, and according to one expert a match. Durst is caught, for the first time, without a ready answer, without a way to explain it. He’s flummoxed – he lets out a burp. The series ends, of course, after that interview – with Durst, alone in the bathroom, apparently unaware that his mic is still recording (despite being warned about this earlier), delivering a haunting, powerful soliloquy/confession that would be the envy of most writers.

That is one of the reasons that, despite all my reservations, I still think The Jinx is an excellent documentary series. The flaws in the series are mainly Jarecki’s – in terms of his structure and the editing, and some of his stretches in credibility. But at the core, he has a fascinating interview with a man who just doesn’t know when to shut up. Durst had gotten away with it – with everything really. And during the course of The Jinx, while he comes close to admitting some things, and he makes pretty much everyone in the audience believe he is probably guilty, he never crosses that line – until the very end. Durst is a creepy guy – but he’s also smart, and at times funny (“How do you accidentally shave off your eyebrows?”). Long after I have forgotten most of what I didn’t like about The Jinx – I will remember Durst himself.

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