The Jinx, the latest from Capturing the Friedmans director Andrew Jarecki, is being sold as an HBO series rather than a documentary. That’s a sensible decision, but it also hints at why it’s such a irksome piece of work.
The miniseries retells the story of accused murderer Robert Durst, part of the Durst clan of Manhattan real-estate moguls. That in itself isn’t noteworthy. Anyone who’s fascinated by true crime probably knows at least some of the details. The first installment, which airs Sunday, rehashes the 2001 murder and dismemberment of Galveston, Texas, resident Morris Black, and the 1982 disappearance of Durst’s then-wife Kathleen McCormack, who had warned friends that Durst was a cold, controlling, frightening person. It avoids getting into another murder that some have attributed to Durst: the 2000 shooting in Benedict Canyon, California, of Durst’s friend Susan Berman, who was on the verge of telling New York Police what she claimed was new information about McCormack’s disappearance.
What is noteworthy is the onscreen presence of Durst himself. He contacted Jarecki after seeing his 2010 film All Good Things, a drama loosely based on Durst, and ended up agreeing to sit for a series of conversations with the filmmaker. HBO only made the first two episodes of The Jinx available for review, so I can’t judge the totality the series. But what I’ve seen is troublesome, and not in a good way.
Legally speaking — and somewhat incredibly, given the overwhelming evidence — Durst can’t be called a murderer. Although he admitted to dismembering Black’s body with a paring knife, two saws, and an ax during his 2003 trial, the jury acquitted him. (As defense attorney Gary Fischetti told New York, “This is not some sort of scientific finding of guilt or innocence. They’re not saying he was innocent. They’re saying that with what they were given for proof, it wasn’t done.”)
But Durst is still a vile presence, and unlike other nonfiction films built around people who are definitely or very likely responsible for other people’s violent deaths — such as Errol Morris’s The Fog of War and Robert Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing — you never get the sense that the filmmaker is pushing beyond prurient interest to uncover a deeper truth, much less discovering something within the subject that makes him seem theoretically redeemable, or at least recognizably human.
In The Jinx, as in his trial and in various public statements, Durst just comes across as yacht-club scum, detached by his wealth from anything resembling empathy, peering down at the rest of us plebes from a ledge in Mordor. That’s cinematic, I guess. But a little of it goes a long way, and if you’re going to make what amounts to a real-life Interview With the Vampire, it helps if your subject has a life that’s fascinating apart from the crimes he’s accused of. In The Jinx, Durst never comes across as anything more than an emotionally defective man who radiates entitlement: an old-guy version of Pete Campbell from Mad Men, minus the flashes of peevish charm. (When Durst’s time among McCormack’s relatives is described as “Bob meets the average American family,” he corrects: “More like ‘Bob is forced to spend time with the average American family,’” i.e., the family of the wife he’s accused of disappearing, and whose surviving relatives are going to see this; what an asshole.)
I should stress again that I haven’t seen the whole series, so there’s a (likely remote) possibility that something could happen that will make me reconsider or retract my first impressions. But I should also say that Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans doesn’t give me much hope in that regard. Although it was a critical success and won major awards, I was irritated by how that film took matters of public record and withheld them until the end of the story to create a false sense of suspense and ambiguity. If Jarecki is working a similar “withhold facts to fabricate surprise” structure here, that would be an act of bad faith, especially if Durst’s comments might’ve added to our understand of his alleged crimes and led to legal closure. But that seems (thankfully) unlikely, because if Durst had confessed on camera or something, we’d have heard about it already.
And that leaves is with what, exactly? Several hours up close and personal with Robert Durst, who, based on the footage I’ve seen, is one of the more tediously revolting men ever to sit for an extended interview. The show’s tagline could have been: You’ve heard Robert Durst is a horrible person, now see for yourself. It’s the same unspoken come-on that drew people to Barbara Walters’s interview with Robert Blake, and Tom Synder’s interview with Charles Manson, but at least Blake and Manson were charismatic, and the broadcasts weren’t gussied up with lavish period reenactments and sold as if they were the second coming of In Cold Blood.