Everyone who watched "Jinx," the HBO documentary about Robert Durst, seemed to have a theory about the man. When the New York Times reported on Monday that the LAPD was re-opening its inquiry into the murder of Susan Berman in 2000 -- one of three deaths to which Durst has been linked -- the comments section was a panoply of knowing observations. Who could guess that so many seemingly ordinary people possess Bobby Goren-level powers of detection and insight into souls of others?
Here are some of the things Times readers deduced simply by scrutinizing filmmaker Andrew Jarecki's taped interviews with the black sheep of one of New York's richest real-estate dynasties: 1) That Durst had been made violent by the use of antidepressants (never mind that he was unlikely to have been prescribed the drugs in 1982, when his first wife disappeared); 2) That Durst's crimes were prefigured in the mysterious deaths of several of his pet dogs, "another reason to keep a watchful eye out for animal abusers;" 3) That the man was obviously suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder, which "from what I've read is not uncommon among children who have suffered a trauma;" 4) That he has "black eyes, just like Charles Manson;" 5) That Durst is a serial killer and "The Jinx" is his "trophy;" 6) That Durst's habit of referring to himself in the third person is a classic sign of sociopathy; and, finally, that he is wearing special Japanese contact lenses designed to make him appear innocent.
Even the paid commenters were getting in on the game. "Robert Durst Blinks Every Goddamn Time He Tells a Lie" crowed Rich Juzwiak at Gawker, a theory whose appeal I can understand, since I briefly entertained it myself. But it turns out that Durst blinks ferociously even when he's saying things that are incontestably true -- and that's where the Japanese contact lenses theory comes into it. Every viewer seems to believe that only his or her preternaturally shrewd powers of observation have noticed that Durst is a veritable grab bag of tics, twitches, winks, shrugs and mouth-wipings. Or that his eyes look really weird.
In the end, though, it hardly mattered how closely and perceptively we read Durst's responses to Jarecki's questions because the filmmakers succeeded at capturing the far more damning remarks he made afterwards, when he thought no one was listening. Twice in "The Jinx" Durst continued speaking after the interview ended but while his mike was still live. In the first instance, earlier in the series, the mike recorded Durst rehearsing the line "I did not knowingly or purposefully lie." Sure, it looked bad, but when you think about it, who speaks off the cuff when they're finally telling their side on an infamous story to the media after decades of silence?
The final scene of "The Jinx," however, will be much harder for Durst to explain away. It comes just after Jarecki confronts Durst with an envelope recently discovered among Berman's effects; the handwritten address uncannily matches that on the letter that tipped off police to her murder. Once the two men are finished talking, Durst goes to the men's room, still wearing a hot mike -- surely the first time (and hopefully the last) a recording of someone apparently defecating has been played on TV -- and mutters the following:
There it is, you're caught. You're right, of course. But you can't imagine. Arrest him. I don't know what's in the house. Oh, I want this. What a disaster. He was right. I was wrong. And the burping. I'm having difficulty with the question. What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.
Durst could conceivably explain "Killed them all, of course," as a sarcastic characterization of what people think he did. He managed to beat a murder rap in the shooting and dismemberment of his neighbor, Morris Black, in 2001 by playing the victim. His lawyers convinced a Galveston, Texas jury that Black died in an accident but that Durst so feared being judged by his past that he decided to dispose of the body on his own rather than call the police. As "The Jinx" demonstrates, Durst's team made much of Westchester County DA Jeanine Pirro, a "politically ambitious woman," being out to get the millionaire, a story that stoked small-town prejudices against pushy, East-Coast broads.
Even eerier is the parallel between the closing scene of "The Jinx" and "All Good Things," the feature film based on Durst's life that Jarecki directed in 2010. "All Good Things" includes a scene in which Kirsten Dunst overhears her husband, the Durst character, played by Ryan Gosling, muttering ominously to himself in the next room. At that moment, she suddenly recognizes there may be something seriously wrong with him. It was "All Good Things" that prompted Durst to contact Jarecki with the suggestion that they do an interview so "I will be able to tell it my way," even though the film portrays the Rosling character as a murderer. "You know more about Robert Durst than any of those people do," he told the director when explaining why he hadn't gone to a true-crime TV show.
Whatever props Jarecki gets for catching Durst in an apparent admission of guilt, "Oh, I want this," may turn out to be as revealing a confession as "Killed them all, of course." Durst's personality is such a miasma of contradictions that it sometimes seems that even he doesn't know what he's done or what he wants. He lived for some time in Galveston disguised as a mute woman because he wanted to "get away from Robert Durst," yet he sought out Jarecki to initiate an act of publicity from which he had absolutely nothing to gain and a whole lot to lose. (Durst's attorney advised him against doing the film, which may be what "He was right. I was wrong" refers to.)
Durst is, of course, crazy, with a history of bizarre behavior that didn't even make it into "The Jinx," including a penchant for urinating into wastebaskets and candy-bar racks. He owned seven Alaskan Malamutes in succession, all named Igor, and all of whom, according to his brother, real estate mogul Douglas Durst, died under suspicious circumstances. In that light, for Durst to deliberately revive public interest in his story, with all the attendant risk of more attention from the police, seems perverse, but hardly out of character. At least some part of Durst must have wanted to get caught. Otherwise, why bother? If that's what Durst was after, he succeeded. He was arrested, on a warrant issued by the LAPD, on Saturday, the day before the series finale aired.
Here's the part where I planned to discuss the weaknesses of "The Jinx," from Jarecki's awkward insertion of himself into the narrative to the film's unfortunate and gratuitous use of dramatic re-enactments. The latter are slavishly derivative of Errol Morris, but without the careful thought and meticulous execution that Morris applies to all questions of evidence and what it can and cannot prove.
The re-enactments in "The Jinx," by contrast, are either distastefully lurid -- repetitive slo-mo shots of "Berman" being shot and falling to the floor -- or coyly dishonest. A faceless man is shown mailing the tip-off letter to the cops, but everything we can see of the figure is made to look and dress like Durst. In another sequence, Jarecki films a man driving down a highway while his sources speculate that Durst might have had time to drive the length of California to kill Berman.
That pretty much everybody -- including me -- thinks Durst is guilty isn't material here. Re-enactments are kosher in documentaries only to the extent that they clarify what we know happened rather than surreptitiously telegraph the filmmaker's opinions. In Morris' crime documentaries, the re-enactments are needed to explain the different ways a clue can be interpreted. In "The Jinx," they're mostly just there to look cool.
But all such quibbles are swept away by the riveting last few minutes of the final episode of "The Jinx." Jarecki's real gift is for interviewing subjects -- his previous film, "Capturing the Friedmans," while less glitzy, is a far more artful showcase of what he does best. It's too easy to write the documentarian off as merely lucky, a repeat stumbler over astonishing true stories. His is an invisible knack, the ability to win people's trust, to coax them into self-revelation before a camera. In Jarecki, Robert Durst finally met his match. The luck was Durst's, and all of it was bad.