This is my #18 "film" of the year. Really behind on writing these up, but I promised myself I'd do it even if it took me until 2017.
I had my first viewing of Andrew Jarecki’s harrowing, brilliantly edited and bleakly humorous six-part documentary miniseries, The Jinx, on May 2, 2015. Just a few hours earlier, I had watched that most elite of American sporting events, the Kentucky Derby. There is something fitting in the juxtaposition between the two that did not hit me until recently. The Derby, with its $25,000 entry fee, is the kind of sporting event in which only a very wealthy subset have a chance of entering, and where only an even smaller and wealthier subset have a reasonable chance of winning. By the same token, The Jinx captures an America where success, happiness, and even justice are increasingly guaranteed to only the most privileged among us. After watching Jarecki’s four-hour-plus expose of black sheep real estate heir Robert Durst and the three murders he is suspected of committing, I was simultaneously alight with anger and sorrowfully exhausted. It was the very best thing I had seen in all of the 2015 film year, and I vowed to make a place for it on my year-end list, episodic format be damned. Nine months later, a number of films, eighteen to be exact, have usurped its throne as the year’s best filmed work. It has even been thrice dethroned as the year’s best work of non-fiction. However, if The Jinx has fallen from the pinnacle of exceptionalism, much like its disgraced subject, it still holds up as the year’s most incisive account of post-recession America’s money culture and the stark class divisions it has created. If nothing else, no film made since the recession has done a better job of poetically capturing our current sense of economic anxiety, and I say that will all due respect for wonderful films like this year’s The Big Short and 2008’s Inside Job. Moreover, when I look back on this year’s films, none of them can match The Jinx for its sheer sense of almost mythic expansiveness. The Jinx is a rigorous true crime documentary about a rich prodigal son getting away with multiple murders, but it expands past its own subject to suggest a larger tapestry of American ambition, economic strife, and failure. Beyond its focused story is the tale of an entire nation in turmoil. In this way, The Jinx is in keeping with great true crime works like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. The best true crime stories transcend the sordid details of a single crime to become something richer and sadder. Capote’s tale of a Kansas family senselessly murdered for an imaginary stash of money saw a whole world of stalled dreams, family dysfunction, desperation, and inadequacy in his two pathetically misguided killers. Capote saw the pressure of living up to expectations and of seeing your grand plans go awry. And, like Jarecki now does, he saw America implicated in all of it. In telling the already sweeping story of a coldly self-rationalizing billionaire and the three violent deaths he almost certainly caused, Jarecki’s The Jinx finds something even more massive and disquieting: an America whose rampant obsession with money has perverted and metastasized its essential character and led to a fundamental disregard for human life. The system that caused the catastrophic 2008 market crash, Jarecki suggests, is the same system that creates an entitled sociopath like Bob Durst, allows him to kill wantonly, sells him his freedom for premium legal fees, and now grants him the right to sit in front of a movie camera, brazenly and unconvincingly washing his hands of the death and destruction he caused. In Robert Durst, Jarecki has presented us with a villain who is both the avatar and unfortunate byproduct of crass capitalism.
The events of The Jinx span from 1982 into the present, with a brief flashback to the 1950s, when a seven year-old Bob Durst saw his mother leap to her death from the roof of their mansion. A crime writer for the New York Times describes Durst as an enigma, and the film chooses to approach him this way from the very outset. We first learn of the third and most recent of Durst’s killings, which took place in Galveston, Texas in 2001. A 71 year-old man named Morris Black was found dismembered, sealed in garbage bags, and floating in Galveston Bay. The head was never recovered. The search fell to Galveston police, including a charismatic, mustachioed, quintessentially Texan investigator named Cody Cazalas. Cazalas traced a piece of mail in one of the bags to an apartment address that had been occupied by an allegedly deaf, mute woman named Dorothy Cyner. In fact, Dorothy was merely the disguise and alias of Bob Durst, a seemingly mild, diminutive grey-haired New Yorker in his fifties. One officer describes him as looking like a librarian. Bob had used the alias of Dorothy to rent an apartment in Galveston, where he could hide from the outside world. Bob even paid the landlord a year in advance, so that he would not have to frequently make contact with people who might recognize him. Cazalas was able to apprehend Durst by following a prescription for glasses to a local eye clinic, where Durst had scheduled an appointment. The wealth of details and evidence in this first segment of The Jinx is vital in setting its tone of melancholic fatigue, even before the whole case goes awry. Before we see the outcome of Bob’s trial in Texas, which is only one piece in the entire puzzle of Bob’s story, Jarecki wants us to see the sheer amount of work that went into it; the full gamut of dead ends and interviews and evidence searches. An officer remembers thinking, “We got him”, but his rueful tone and pregnant pause betray that this is not how the story is fated to end. For the Galveston police, the first alarm bells sounded when the unassuming Durst was able to post his $300,000 bail. Investigators learned that Robert was the eldest child of the Durst family, one of the wealthiest real estate dynasties in all of New York City. Durst had the resources of a powerful family that could set him free and afford to pay the two best criminal defense lawyers in Texas, when Durst and his most recent wife could not agree on which one to pick. In spite of the advantages afforded by his family’s money, Robert fled from his arraignment hearing, driving as far north as Pennsylvania before he was arrested for shoplifting. In an act that seems almost willfully foolish, Bob stole a cheap sandwich from a Wegman’s grocery store, despite having vast sums of money in the trunk of his car. The Durst who emerges in this first segment is a man both steeped in great privilege and visibly scornful of it. He carries himself with the oblivious air of a man who knows he can get away with anything but simultaneously seems a bit embarrassed by his fortune.
The second segment flashes back to the 1970s, as Bob relates his decision to cast off the burden of being his family’s presumed heir and live a simpler, though still quite opulent, life in New York’s famously rich Westchester County. In 1973, Bob married his first wife, Kathie McCormack, and left the weighty world of owning and managing New York City skyscrapers for the bucolic life of a health food store proprietor. The Bob Durst who first emerges in interviews is strangely relatable at times, if only because of his willingness to buck the traditions of empire and succession that his family tried to foist upon him. Bob is an odd, uncomfortable man from the start, but his strange tics and nervous manner also lend him a degree of humanity that stands in contrast to the cold halls of power he was born into. Bob wishes his wealth did not matter, even though it very obviously does and always will. When he fails as the chosen son, his father passes the honor of leading the family empire to his younger brother Douglas, and thereby sows rotten seeds of distrust between his sons. However, while Bob tries to brush off the influence his privilege has had on him, the straight-talking veneer he wears soon falls away to reveal a man paradoxically unstable and supremely calculating. Kathie McCormack’s family speaks of Bob as an aloof man who was never at ease with those from lower classes. After Bob coerced Kathie into having an abortion, she became resentful of Bob. Bob became foul-tempered and volatile. Kathie’s friends report that the marriage turned violent and Kathie expressed fear of Bob’s temper. One night in 1982, Kathie drove home from a friend’s party and was never seen again. Bob claimed to have dropped her off at the Montauk train station, which took her to their second home in New York City. The revelation that Bob kept a New York City penthouse while trying to play the role of a humble general store owner strikes a blow to Bob’s forced humility and we become more aware of the many masks Bob constructs for himself. Bob’s vulnerability never goes away, but he becomes less and less recognizably human, like an alien whose skin is too loose. In 1982, Bob told the police that, after dropping Kathie off at the station, he walked his dog, made a phone call, and had a glass of wine with a neighbor. Now, three decades later, as he sits telling Jarecki his story, Bob admits that he made up the walk, the call, and the wine in order to prevent police from looking into the story about the train station. Three alibis were fabricated in order to protect a fourth alibi, and Bob, either arrogantly or recklessly, admits to it. As Bob himself confesses to the falsehoods, Jarecki dramatizes Bob’s fabrications in the style of films like Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line. As facts become fiction, the dog, the telephone call, and the wine disappear into a fog. While some have pointed out The Jinx’s debt to Morris, it cannot be denied that the approach is well-chosen, and the results are perfectly chilling.
Bob’s lies crucially allowed him to avoid scrutiny when the authorities were looking into Kathie’s disappearance. In the third segment, we learn that Bob likely engaged Susan Berman, an old friend and the daughter of a famed New York City Mafioso, to help him hide Kathie’s remains in the New Jersey pine barrens. However, in 2000, Westchester District Attorney announced plans to question Berman about Kathie’s disappearance. At this same time, Berman’s career as a novelist was faltering and she told Bob that Pirro was questioning her, likely in the hopes that Bob would offer her money for her silence. On Christmas Eve, Berman was found murdered in her Beverley Hills home, shot in the back of the head. Police were alerted to the murder three days later by an anonymous piece of paper, mailed to them, with the word “Cadaver” written on it. It informed them that the body was located in “Beverly Hills”. The note was distinctive for two reeasons. First, it seemed to indicate that whoever murdered Susan Berman cared about her enough to hope that she would be found soon after her death. Secondly, the word “Beverley” had been misspelled. When the death of Susan Berman reawakened suspicions about Bob’s role in the disappearance of Kathie, Bob shaved his eyebrows, bought a wig, and went to Galveston, Texas to hide. Morris Black was found floating in garbage bags in Galveston Bay less than a year later.
The fourth segment recounts Bob’s trial for the murder of Morris Black. Bob’s two attorneys brilliantly painted an alternate story in which the elderly Black was a friend of Bob, rather than an opportunist who recognized Bob and got killed when he threatened to blow his cover. It was an uncorroborated story stitched out of whole cloth, but somehow became increasingly credible through repetition. One lawyer remembers hearing the jurors laughing at Bob’s testimony about his odd couple relationship with the curmudgeonly Black and looking on in shock. Bob’s legal team had credibly sold the man who killed and dismembered his neighbor as an endearing eccentric; an idiosyncratic, wig-wearing oddball. But the most horrific accomplishment of the trial was that Bob’s defense never disputed that he shot and dismembered Black. Instead, Bob’s attorneys asked the jury to consider that Bob had acted in self-defense. They also insisted that the jury should not consider Black’s dismemberment as evidence of Bob’s intent in committing the crime. As we watch the jury buy into the schizophrenia of the defense’s theory, we witness concrete proof of how money can subvert justice. Bob Durst killed, dismembered, fled the authorities, and finally admitted to it all. And, when all that was done, the Durst Organization had the resources to snatch their black sheep from justice’s jaws and shepherd him back to safety. The trial segment is masterfully infuriating; so damning of the role of money in our justice system as to be downright enthralling. The Jinx is a work of art to view in dismay and sad shock, but Jarecki never fails to make his melancholy crime saga riveting in the telling.
The Jinx is a dizzyingly dense collage of events, dates, interviews, and facts, and all of that before it enters its fifth and sixth segments, where it sneakily builds to the most shattering, seismic conclusion of perhaps any film this year. But what makes The Jinx such a rich emotional experience and what allows it to be about more than the despicable acts of one troubled man is the way it threads so many other human voices into its narrative. “Talking head” is often a derogatory term in documentary filmmaking, and The Jinx is not above using talking heads interviews to exposit its story. But the way these interviewees are presented and how invested they have clearly become in this story over the sprawling years make them feel like more. Some have natural reasons for being invested, such as Kathie McCormack’s family or the group of Kathie’s friends who spent years acting as private sleuths, digging through garbage cans and making regular visits to the precinct, even when the police said there was nothing more to be done. But the feeling of concern for Durst’s victims and the yearning for some kind of justice includes the professionals who have investigated and reported on his case. Cody Cazalas cries into his grey handlebar moustache when he thinks of Morris Black. In Jeanine Pirro, the Westchester County District Attorney who has followed Durst’s story since Kathie’s disappearance, we see a ferociously intelligent and determined woman who has kept her eyes open for decades just waiting for some kind of headway. I was fascinated by the New York Times crime columnist who has spent years writing about Durst. In the first segment, when Durst flees Texas, he stops at a house in Westchester, where a neighbor finds him in a daze staring out at a lake. As he reads aloud from his own article, he looks up to clarify that this of course is the house where Kathie was last seen before she disappeared. As he says this he gazes at the camera with a faint smile that hints at a weary sadness. It is the look of a man who has come to know this pitiable monster intimately, to even care about him in some strange way. And at this moment, he cannot quite decide whether to feel bemused at how out of touch Bob Durst is, righteously angry for his victims, or defeated that he’s still talking about him as a free man after all these years. All of these people react personally to this case, and that sense of a larger community is what allows Jarecki to transform the Robert Durst story into the story of an entire nation coming to terms with the injustices wrought by its own ugly class divisions. No one feels like a mere professor on the subject of Bob Durst, and this allows the movie to be about something bigger, more important, and maybe even hopeful. They all feel like people who have born witness to a tragic farce and who have waited a long time for something good to come of all this. What makes The Jinx so beautifully heart-wrenching is how you feel for all of the people caught in the wake of these senseless deaths. By the time The Jinx reached it’s riveting nail-biter of an ending, I felt wincing empathy for the opaque but strangely human enigma that is Bob Durst. I was also hoping to my very soul that karma would somehow catch him. And I saw that I was not alone in either regard.
Jarecki’s film is the story of Bob Durst and the increasingly classist America he fits into, but it is also the story of Jarecki’s own conflicted journey with Bob and his growing desire to see justice done. In the last moments of the fifth segment, the film transforms from a rich, sad true crime story with a capitalist backdrop, into a pulse-pounding detective thriller. In the third segment, Jarecki introduces us to Susan Berman’s stepson, Sareb Kaufman. In the wake of Susan’s death, Bob reached out to Sareb in friendship and offered to pay his college tuition. Sareb had always felt uneasy about the nature of Bob’s generosity, knowing that it might be Bob’s way of assuaging his own guilt. Nonetheless, like Jarecki, Sareb has nursed a kind of protective fondness for Bob. I can understand the feeling. There is something in Durst’s squirmy vulnerability that, at times, becomes creepily disarming. At the end of the fifth segment, Jarecki is planning to wrap up his project. He finishes his last interview with Bob, and it seems The Jinx will become the story of how economic privilege helped one very ill-adjusted man get away with three murders. If one sees Bob as a reflection of the reckless capitalist system that he inhabits, it is fair to suggest that this would have even been the most accurate ending to this story. The men with the money purchase a clean slate, the less fortunate are left broken and vainly searching for closure, and, as Kurosawa once said, the bad sleep well. However, a real-life deus ex machina intervenes when Sareb calls Jarecki and urgently tells him to come see him at his home. Sareb has been going through Susan’s files and has found a letter from Bob. The envelope is addressed to Susan’s address in Beverley Hills. Bob has misspelled “Beverly” and the error is identical to that found on the “Cadaver” note. It is the point when Jarecki loses his last shred of uncertainty about Bob’s role in the killings and so do we.
In the sixth and final segment, Jarecki and his two collaborators arrange to have Bob come in for a final supplementary interview to go over evidence, and set up a plan to entrap him with his own poor spelling. The film’s final 40 minute are its most viscerally intense and perversely entertaining, and that is probably part of the reason why some critics have taken issue with this part of the film. The Jinx is a sober film. It is about the aftermath of unspeakable acts. It is about the bleak economic state of our country. By that logic, it might seem tonally wrong to watch the director of such a serious-minded crime expose suddenly step into the role of the heroic detective, in the most white knuckle episode of To Catch A Predator ever filmed. This is a legitimate concern, but all I can say is that these scenes build with such intensity and anxious humor that the journalistic ethics of the scenario become less than an afterthought. Those final minutes are the most emotional and breathlessly exciting found in any film this year, and to be frank, I felt that Jarecki, his collaborators, and the countless people affected by these crimes over the years had earned this kind of theatrically electrifying catharsis. And, as with the rest of the series, Jarecki’s conclusion does not feel pat or self-congratulatory. For one thing, I had spent so much time with Bob Durst by that time, I could not shake my sense of sorrow for him. As Bob incriminates himself and then realizes his dire situation, he starts to gag and belch. Then he goes into the bathroom with his mic on and mutters that he “killed them all, of course”, and my heart dropped into my stomach. What a sad, strange rollercoaster The Jinx is. I felt a melancholic regret muddying up my hatred for this vain, vicious, broken man. Somehow, even when I knew beyond a doubt that Bob was guilty, I still saw him more as a monster to pity than as a monster to loathe. There are many kinds of monsters, and Bob is always more Grendel than Anton Chigurh. Maybe the subdued sadness of that realization is the other reason I do not find this exciting ending to be incongruous with the sobriety that characterizes most of The Jinx. Whatever giddiness I felt soon subsided, as I sat and reflected on the decades of sad events and ruined lives that had brought Bob Durst to this fateful moment. All those years of grief and turmoil and finally a single, brief moment of closure that would never really be enough. Bob was arrested for Susan Berman’s murder three days before The Jinx’s final segment aired, and that is obviously a huge coup for justice. But in the grand scheme, it feels meager.
Just as the snapping of Perry Smith’s neck in In Cold Blood feels like the empty conclusion to a stupid tragedy, whatever fate awaits Bob Durst is cold comfort when compared to the larger national injustice that The Jinx evokes. A guilty verdict for Bob Durst cannot bring the dead back. What reverberates is a sense that the America which forged Bob has become a land scorched and savaged by money. In the class divisions that estranged Bob from his brother. In the sterile pressures of privilege that pushed Bob’s mother to suicide, and very well may have broken Bob’s psyche. In the futility of Bob’s belief that he could lead a normal life as a small business owner when his wealth and family ties had tainted him long ago. In the unflinching callousness of those who toppled the nation’s economy in 2008 and then returned to sack what was left. In the callousness of those who will do it next time. In the classist contempt that led the Durst family to go decades without so much as reaching out to Kathie’s bereft family, lest it threaten their business or tarnish their dynastic image. They were family, but the money was between them. It was on top of them and all around them, and inside of them, pulsing sickly green through their veins. As I turned off The Jinx to go for a walk outside, I thought about Fargo, the Coen brothers’ not-quite-true-crime masterpiece, and I thought about its noble heroine, Marge Gunderson. At the film’s end, when Marge reflects on all the lives senselessly ravaged by greed, desperation, and inadequacy, she shakes her head and asks, “And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little bit money, you know?” Somewhere in New York City, I imagined, a man in a skyscraper heard her words, thought about them for a moment, and disagreed.