Early in the second episode of The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, director Andrew Jarecki asks his subject, an accused murderer who has spent decades manipulating the truth, to explain the risk and the reward of wanting to be interviewed now, after years of refusing and resenting the media’s interest in him.
“The downside of giving an interview is that the interviewer will take what I’ve said and make me look as bad as possible,” says Durst, 71, a dusty gecko of a man with beady black eyes and a fragile, gravely New Yawker voice. “The upside is that there will be something out there from me. … I will be able to tell [my story] my way, and if someone is reasonably open to a different story or different situation that has been put out there in the media, then they’ll have the opportunity.”
In the end, Robert Durst didn’t need a devilish interviewer to frame him, though Jarecki often played the part over the course of his absorbing six-part docu-series. Durst did himself in with his own words—chilling, indelible words—muttered during a spontaneous, ill-timed interview with himself. They leave us with no doubt that he is, indeed, a bad man, responsible for murdering his first wife, Kathleen McCormick, his friend, Susan Berman, and a former neighbor, Morris Black.
Following an interview in which Jarecki presented him with evidence linking him to Berman’s death, Durst—who responded coolly to the confrontation, with the exception of a brief, weird burping fit—went to the bathroom, still wearing a hot mic, and began talking to himself. “There it is. You’re caught,” he said, launching into a ramble of self-criticism (“And the burping!”) and resignation, culminating with a line that instantly becomes one of the great last lines, ever: “Killed them all, of course.” Then, silence, and a long beat of darkness that seemed to last for an eternity.
I’m hard pressed at the moment to think of a more stunning, breathtaking, Did-That-Just-Happen?/That-did-NOT-just-happen! finish in my TV viewing life. The Sopranos? (This was slightly more important.) The final seconds of the Seahawks-Patriots Super Bowl? (Kidding.) Maybe forget comparisons and hyperbole for now. It was simply a shocker for which the overused, trite SHOCKER! is precisely, finally apt.
We are left with unanswered questions and tough debates. Is it possible that Durst wanted to get caught? He was often so brazen and reckless with his half-truths, lies, and defense strategies, so suspicious and bizarre with his behavior, you wondered. Yet Jarecki never explored the idea. Did Durst’s powerful, wealthy family, owners of prime Manhattan real estate, know more about his crimes than they have admitted? The Jinx implicated them, but never followed it up. (Durst loathed his young brother, Douglas, since childhood, to the point of wanting him dead. I wondered: Is it possible that Durst—who pitched Jarecki on this project after seeing Jarecki’s 2010 Durst-inspired feature, All Good Things – undertook this endeavor with some kind of If-I’m-going-down-I’m-going-to-take-everyone-down-with-me ambition?) And how to explain Jarecki’s fixation with Durst, anyway? Given that Jarecki made himself a major character in the film, I would’ve liked to have seen him interrogate his own interest with this man.
Then there’s the matter of how Jarecki and his associates handled the incriminating evidence they discovered during their many years working on this series: A letter from Durst to Berman, the handwriting and misspelling of Beverly Hills (“BEVERLEY”) on the envelope identical to a letter sent by Berman’s presumed killer to police, notifying them of a corpse at her residence.
Me, I think Jarecki and his producing partner Marc Smerling should have turned it over to police ASAP. I admire the desire to serve and mete out justice, but it’s not their job. What if Durst went and did more psycho shit during the time they were sitting on the evidence, allowing him to roam free? Would that blood be on their hands? And anyway, I just don’t believe being “agents of justice” was the filmmakers’ first concern: I think they were thinking first and foremost about what was best for their story, and how their story could make the biggest possible pop impact. It was cunning and manipulative and wrong—just like Robert Durst. The ends don’t justify the means, but they got away with it, with no one else getting hurt or killed. At the very least, I would have liked to have seen Jarecki and his team argue and explain their decision more than they did.
(Note: I make these judgments not knowing when or if Jarecki and Smerling contacted authorities, or how—or if—they consulted and coordinated with police. This information is probably available to me now, as I write this. But it wasn’t in the show, and that disappointed and frustrated me, too.)
Still, from beginning to end, The Jinx was engrossing entertainment. If every great yarn requires a compelling protagonist and an even better antagonist, Robert Durst, an anti-hero for the ages, satisfied the demands of both parts very well. The first four installments teased two competing tensions and possibilities at the same time: Was The Jinx going to be about exonerating an innocent man whose foibles and sins made him all too easy to frame? (Think: Gone Girl.) Or was it going to about blowing up a guilty man’s charade of innocence with GOTCHA! journalism, or by catching him in a slip? (Think: Primal Fear.)
The latter was more likely than the former, though until the penultimate episode, when we learned that Jarecki and his team had uncovered a piece of evidence linking Durst to Berman’s murder, it seemed like The Jinx would be neither—and end up being one of those arty ruminations-on-the-mutability-of-memory-and-truth things with some Aren’t Rich Privileged White People The Worst? subtext. (Not that that’s bad.) It was as if Jarecki had bagged himself a real-life Verbal Kint, hoping to coax him into betraying his hidden Keyser Soze… only to have Durst thwart him by instead playing the Claus von Bulow of Reversal of Fortune, running the narrative toward an endgame of maddening ambiguity that favored him. (That version of the series would have ended with Jarecki telling Durst, “You’re a very strange man,” and Durst batting his small Sleestak eyes and replying, “You have no idea.”)
The Jinx possessed the pleasures of so many different kinds of mystery/crime stories that it played like a summary statement for an entire category. The Jinx was Unsolved Mysteries writ fancy. It was a quixotic armchair detective documentary a la The Thin Blue Line, Paradise Lost, and most recently, the pop phenom podcast Serial. It was a twist-ending murder mystery like Presumed Innocent, reminiscent of long-con storytelling mysteries like The Usual Suspects, expressed via TV’s hottest format—the short-form saga, a structure that favors what critic Matt Zoller Seitz has dubbed “slow crime” shows like True Detective,* Fargo, and The Missing. The Jinx belongs to the gold rush of sophisticated post-modern pulp pop that has come to us since Pulp Fiction and the O.J. Simpson trial marked the national psyche by making a spectacular mockery of truth, justice and Robert Durst’s best friend, reasonable doubt
In the end, though, The Jinx was satisfying as the usual crime-time procedural, from CSI and Cold Case. Follow the clues. Make the connections. Make the bad guy confess. We won’t get fooled again!
The storytelling in The Jinx relied on original interviews, news and trial footage, and handsomely produced recreations of key moments in Durst’s life and all of his crimes—a few of which risked exploitation, such as the slow-mo assassination of Susan Berman and the “long, long fall” of Durst’s mother, who committed suicide by jumping off a roof when Durst was 7. They were truthful while also reminding us that the whole truth was not yet known or settled.
The artful fuzz in so many of the shots—the out-of-focus foregrounds, the obscured faces, the languid, dreamy quality—served to cast shade on Durst’s storytelling, telling us: You can’t trust what this guy. They were sly, manipulative subversions of a sly, manipulative man. Just when you thought Jarecki was letting Durst drive and frame the narrative, he would give you a detail to contradict and invalidate his half-truths, quarter truths, and outright lies. A recurring visual motif, maybe the defining image of The Jinx in general: The back of Durst’s head, dead center in the screen, partially obstructing our view of what’s he’s seeing, what he’s narrating to us. The way to truth was through him.
Or around him. And in the end, that’s what it took to nail down the truth, and nail Durst: Years and years and hours and hours of legwork, interviewing everyone who could possibly be interviewed, anyone linked to Durst, his victims, his crimes and mysteries. It was this commitment to comprehensiveness that led them to Berman’s stepson, Sareb Kaufman, a fascinating, flawed character among many fascinating and flawed characters in this series. Kaufman not only became friends with Durst following Berman’s death, but agreed to take money from him—$25,000 a year for four years—to pay for college. He couldn’t believe Durst was a bad man.
Not long after his first interview with Jarecki, in which he looked uncomfortable describing his relationship with man who might have murdered his stepmom, Kaufman contacted Jarecki’s team again with the news that he had made a shocking find while rummaging through a box of Berman’s things he had only recently discovered: the “Beverley” letter. The implications of this “reality check” left Kaufman gut-punched, just as Durst’s own reality check during the final moments of The Jinx’s finale left him struggling – belching! – for breath.
“There it is. You’re caught.” And there it is, The Jinx: Cunning, queasy, righteous, classic.
*All hail Robert Durst, The Yellow King of 2015! I thought a lot about True Detective while watching The Jinx. Durst reminded me somewhat of Rust Cohle, weary and wasted, maybe playing games with the interviewers putting him on tape. His “nobody ever tells the whole truth” is this year’s “time is a flat circle.” In the end, though, Durst had more in common with the villain of True Detective, a psycho protected by—and disenfranchised from—his powerful family, and whose sloppy final act may have been undertaken, subconsciously, to wreck the family he hated.