I’ve never seen anything quite like the ending of the HBO series The Jinx.
That’s not the same thing as saying I unreservedly love and admire Andrew Jarecki’s documentary series. But really, now: That closing scene — a static image of an empty interview room, accompanied by audio of the show’s subject, accused murderer Robert Durst, mumbling what sounded like a confession — was uniquely chilling. It might be one of the great moments in nonfiction cinema, up there with the final sequence of Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (which I’ll discuss in a moment because it’s weirdly similar), and the sequences in The Jinx’s primary inspiration, Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line, which used logic and evidence to exonerate a wrongly imprisoned man. And it was Watercooler-in-the-Cloud viewing par excellence, dominating TV-centric Twitter as relentlessly as Mad Men, Scandal, or Empire — especially after word got out that Durst had been arrested in New Orleans on a 2000 Los Angeles murder warrant, mere hours before the finale’s premiere, after checking into a hotel under an assumed name with a fake ID. (The LAPD says the arrest was not connected to last night’s finale.)
“There it is, you’re caught,” he’s heard muttering during the climax of The Jinx, onto a lapel microphone he’d apparently forgotten that he was wearing. “What a disaster.”
I’ve had aesthetic issues with HBO’s documentary series from the start, including the way it pads what might’ve been a taut two-hour film into a six-part TV program and transforms Durst’s lordly arrogance and possible mental illness into a source of cheap-seats entertainment (quite effectively, though; Durst’s transitioning out of his bow-saw soliloquy with “Aaaaaany-wayyyyy …” is one of the funniest things I shouldn’t have laughed at). After last night’s finale, I have more issues, including the way the show fudges its timeline to create suspense (at one point making it seem as though Durst was arrested before that final interview, when he was actually arrested after), and the questionable ethics of stashing an incriminating letter in a safe-deposit box until the filmmakers could confront Durst with it on camera, rather than taking it to the police right away. (“I’m assuming The Jinx 2 will be about establishing the timeline of The Jinx,” Time magazine’s Jim Poniewozik joked, or maybe half-joked.)
Durst’s men’s-room yammerings were cleverly foreshadowed at the end of episode four, when Durst’s lawyer warned him during a break in an interview that his lapel mic was still live. They will be endlessly parsed. His “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course” will be interpreted as both a straightforward admission of multiple murder and a panicked projection of what the public might think of Durst. (The interview that yielded the “confession” actually happened in 2012, but the filmmakers say they didn’t discover the men’s room audio until last fall.)
Is that bit of audio even admissible in court? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on the venue, and the strength of arguments for and against admitting the audio. The best exploration of this issue I’ve read so far — by Noah Feldman, writing for Bloomberg — concludes that the men’s-room moment will probably “never reach a jury,” and that even if it does, it might not prove what a lot of people want it to prove because it takes “the classic form of a soliloquy. And soliloquies are by their very nature ambiguous — because there’s no actual addressee. We don’t need to communicate with ourselves in spoken words, because we already know what we know. When we talk out loud to ourselves, we’re doing something different: exploring our ideas, fantasies, doubts, fears.”
I’m still not sure what to make of it all. Durst is creepy as hell, and not just because the filmmakers overlight him so that he looks like an elderly vampire with eight-ball-hemorrhage eyes. And the overarching explanation for the violence and misery that’s trailed him for decades (he’s unlucky!) doesn’t jibe with most people’s experience; I’ve never known trouble to follow people who weren’t themselves trouble, have you? And there are moments where it seems as though some part of him wants to get caught. Why else would he have revealed his true identity to the Galveston neighbor he eventually chopped up? Why else would he have violated the order of protection against himself and climbed the front steps of his estranged brother Douglas’s townhouse? Why else would he go over handwriting samples with Jarecki on camera, and note twice that the word Beverly was misspelled on both an envelope sent by Durst to Susan Berman, the friend who was found shot dead in 2000, and an anonymous letter telling police that they would find “a cadaver” in her home? “The writing looks similar and the spelling is the same, so I can see the conclusion the cops would draw,” Durst told Jarecki, whose hands were visibly shaking as he showed Durst the handwriting samples.
Durst’s decision to be interviewed in the first place itself seems to suggest a buried desire to — well, if not confess, exactly, then at least stumble toward truth. It might be a version of the impulse that caused former Indonesian death squad members to talk to documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer for The Act of Killing, and even create bizarre short films about their exploits at Oppenheimer’s urging. The movie’s unspoken thesis is that there is a moral compass inside everyone, that even those who seem like cold-blooded or self-rationalizing sociopaths feel guilt for doing heinous things. Their guilt can be buried inside what sound (at first) like boastful or arrogant statements. A clever interrogator can tease them out into plain view, where the subject has to come to terms with them.
This is expressed most vividly when one of the film’s subjects, Anwar Congo, talks about the first time he cut a man’s throat, and describes the gurgling sound the man made as he choked to death on his own blood. The film’s harrowing climax finds Congo taking the filmmakers to a spot where he’d previously demonstrated how he used to strangle prisoners with piano wire, and wandering around the grounds by himself, making a retching sound that increases in volume and intensity until it sounds as if he’s trying to puke up a demon.
I thought of that moment when Durst began making strange and seemingly involuntary nonverbal sounds during his conversation with Jarecki, then commented upon it later in the men’s room (“the burping,” he called it). It did sound as though he was trying to expel toxins from his body, or his psyche. (Cops used to command prisoners in interrogation rooms to “spill.”) Jarecki told the Times that he and his co-producer thought the men’s-room comments “came bubbling out of him. When you listen to it, it’s chilling because it feels like you’re channeling something from very deep inside a person, and that while he could argue that he was sorry that he did it, the truth is he seemed to be compelled to confess.”
If Durst’s men’s-room monologue is in fact a confession, and a court treats it as such, any objections I or any other critic might have about The Jinx’s storytelling will be filed under “the ends justify the means.” Relatives of the people Durst has been accused of killing or disappearing hope this moment will bring closure after decades of frustration.
But Durst’s legal history should tamp down expectations. He is, after all, still a multimillionaire, capable of buying a defense that can make the impossible possible — like the one that convinced a Galveston jury that although Durst chopped up an elderly neighbor, he wasn’t guilty of murder because he killed the man in self-defense. The most unsettling episode for me was the fifth one, which convincingly argued that Durst’s criminal history has been underinvestigated by New York police for decades because of his family connections. Whatever happens or doesn’t happen because of that men’s-room moment, The Jinx has proved beyond reasonable doubt that different rules apply to the rich.