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Television Review – The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst

The Jinx (2015; Directed by Andrew Jarecki)

Illustratingly subtitled The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, The Jinx joined Netflix’s Making a Murderer and the radio podcast Serial in a minor swell of true crime documentary series last year. As the subtitle indicates, it examines the often strange case of Robert Durst, the eldest scion of a wealthy Manhattan real estate dynasty who has been suspected but never convicted in the deaths of his wife, best friend, and next-door neighbour over the space of twenty years.

But The Jinx is not simply a true crime documentary but an often slippery, compromised biography of Durst himself, who emerges as an alternately diabolically brilliant and clumsily imprudent character of baroque weirdness and mental insecurity. Director Andrew Jarecki, who made the wrenching, acclaimed documentary feature Capturing the Friedmans, gained unprecedented access to the paranoid and media-shy Durst, filming twenty hours of conversations with him over several years. Jarecki was not new to the subject of Durst, having directed All Good Things, a fictionalized version of the Durst saga starring Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst that is almost completely forgotten but hooked Durst with its even-handedness. Durst’s trust in Jarecki is sorely tested as the filmmaker is confronted with a growing body of evidence that his subject may indeed be a murderer, and Jarecki’s comfort level with the sting-like nature of his unfolding documentary is likewise strained.

The Jinx lays out the odd circumstances of those titular “deaths” revolving around Durst in a deconstructed manner. First is Durst’s wife, Kathie, a medical student who vanished in the winter of 1982 somewhere between their country home in South Salem, New York and Manhattan, possibly after Durst dropped her off to catch a train, probably (but unprovably) prior to that. No body was ever found and police didn’t look seriously into Durst until 1999, though a later New York DA and many of Kathie’s friends were convinced that he killed her. Jarecki is less clear and open with this particular part of the saga, but it seems clear that the Dursts’ early happy union in Vermont became permanently poisoned when he was pushed back into the family business by his father. They argued frequently, and many friends and acquaintances testified that he physically abused her. But without a body, not much could be pinned to Durst or anyone else.

The subsequent two deaths occured a year apart in 2000 and 2001, and both brought charges against Durst. Durst’s close friend, confidant, and media spokesperson Susan Berman was murdered first in an execution-style shooting at her home in Los Angeles. Berman, whom many of those suspicious of Durst believe to be the gatekeeper of his secrets, had told others that she was about to publically reveal something huge. This may not have been about Durst, as her case is complicated by her ties to her mobster father and her revelations of secrets from the mob life, but there are definite reasons to suspect Durst for the crime (and indeed he was charged and arrested for it during the airing of the series).

The third and most bizarre death was Durst’s killing, dismemberment, and disposal of septagenarian Morris Black in Galveston, Texas in 2001. Living in the isolated Texas coastal city to avoid the glare of the public eye, Durst was using a woman’s name as an alias and even dressing as a woman to disguise himself. His cantakerous neighbour Black saw through the ruse, and though Durst claims they were friends, it seems more likely that Black threatened to blackmail him by revealing his whereabouts. At any rate, Black was shot dead, cut into pieces, and dumped into Galveston Bay by Durst, who stood trial for the murder but was found not guilty when his defence team argued that Black was shot accidentally during a struggle, or in self-defence at the worst. Without Black’s head (Durst returned to the dump site the morning after leaving Black’s remains, almost certainly to better hide the head), the theory could not be disproven, and Durst walked.

Robert Durst may indeed be a serial murderer (he has been faintly connected to at least two other mysterious deaths), but the portrait that Jarecki paints of him in The Jinx is of a very strange and unfortunate man with deep emotional and mental problems that his wealth and privilege have intermittently insulated him from (this would be the titular jinx). His mother  committed suicide when he was a boy (one of Jarecki’s re-enactments paints this as a particularly haunting moment), his father neglected him, his younger brother pushed him out of the family business. He’s private and anti-social but weirdly chatty with Jarecki, and oddly incautious for a man evading suspicion for multiple killings: while on the lam after the death of Morris Black, Durst was notoriously caught in a Wegman’s in Pennsylvania for shoplifting a chicken salad sandwich with $500 cash in his pocket. This anecdote, amusing though it might be, betrays a streak of guilt and perhaps an unconscious desire to face the consequences for his crimes that would serve to explain Durst’s startlingly uncareful hot-mic mutterings of a self-incriminating nature, to say nothing of a note mailed to the Beverly Hills Police informing them of a “cadaver” at Susan Berman’s address that may be the smoking gun for his recent arrest for that murder.

As The Jinx moves along, Jarecki himself becomes more and more of an active onscreen character, especially as a new discovery among Durst’s documents (which he willingly gave Jarecki’s team access to) sheds new light on the cadaver note. In its closing hour, The Jinx becomes more than just an absorbing baroque non-fiction crime saga with an elusive, enigmatic Asperger-esque lizard-person as its protagonist. It becomes that post-modern documentary feature mainstay, an examination of the nature, reach, and limitations of the documentary form itself. What responsibilities do filmmakers have to their subjects in a documentary film, especially as that subject is increasingly exposed (perhaps even employs the film itself to expose himself) as a cold-blooded killer? The Jinx suggests that the truth is paramount, even when that truth is highly obscured and the effort to uncover it leads a filmmaker to betray his subject.

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