All Good Things / The Jinx

All Good Things and the Jinx are a very odd pairing. Oh, sure, they have a lot of similarities: they are both directed by Andrew Jarecki, both are about murderous millionaires, and both walk a thin line between condemning their protagonist and sympathizing with him. But All Good Things is a fiction film while the Jinx is a documentary, and thus they tell their similar stories in radically different ways.

It makes sense to start with the Jinx because it documents the real life events that inspired All Good Things. The Jinx is about Robert Durst, an heir to a New York real estate fortune who might have murdered three different people across three decades: he is implicated in the disappearance of his wife in the early 80s and the gangland-style shooting of an old friend in the early 2000s, plus he definitely murdered his next door neighbor Morris Black during a brief period when he lived in Texas. Durst was only ever charged with Black's murder, and he successfully argued that it was self-defense when it went to trial - which is insane, because after Black was dead Durst chopped up the body with a saw, threw the parts in a trash bag and then threw the bag in Galveston Bay, which is not exactly my definition of "self defense."

The Jinx has some real flaws, particularly since it might have fudged some of the facts of the case, but it is still an engaging bit of filmmaking. Mostly this is due to Durst himself, who has has the sort of gaze you can't really look away from because there is some reptile part of your brain that keeps warning you keep an eye on this fucker because he might try to murder you. But Durst's matter of fact way of talking is also transfixing. His ability to self-justify the dark actions he has admitted to committing and his ability to dodge the accusations he won't admit to committing is fascinating because it continually makes you ask yourself how in the world did he get away with any of this?

The inescapability of that question gives the show a driving rhythm - you keep wanting to push forward in the hopes that you'll finally get the explanation as to how this obviously guilty creep managed to avoid serious jail time. The fact that the Jinx ultimately can't answer that question is pretty frustrating, not just because it suggests that we live in a world that is without justice, but because it shows that the producers were too focused on Durst as an individual to see a larger and more important story about the overall sorry state of our justice system.

In contrast, All Good Things is not nearly as dark, even though it features the exact same number of murders. Actually, All Good Things feels like a romance, since it spends most of its first hour setting up the doomed relationship between New York real estate millionaire "David Marks" and his wife "Katie" and then treats her disappearance as a total after-thought. This movie shows how the two wildly different youths met and how they fell in love. It contrasts her warm and loving family with his cold family, and then it shows how David's demanding father undermined the relationship by undermining David. The movie isn't completely sympathetic to its Durst stand-in - it does unequivocally implicate him as a murderer - but it does come damn close to excusing Katie's unpleasant end by showing us all of the miseries and pressures that beset poor David from his earliest days, and it goes out of its way to portray him as a haunted and remorseful man.

If you know anything about the real-life Durst it is kind of hard to swallow All Good Thing's Shakespearean portrait of David Marks, but after thinking about it for several days now I have to say that their decision to soften Marks' edges does kind of make sense. No actor was ever going to be able to pull off a straight imitation of Durst because non-sociopaths can't radiate that same type of coldness, so why not take the portrait in a different direction? Given that they ended up casting Ryan Gosling as Marks I'm glad they re-wrote the role to de-emphasize its monstrous qualities because Gosling has the sort of natural warmth that makes him an excellent romantic lead and a completely unbelievable serial killer. It might be less truthful to rewrite the role to play to Gosling's strengths, but it does make for a better end product.

This naturally leads us back to the old debate about the difference between a documentary and a fiction film, and It isn't as simple of a debate as it might initially seem. Yes, All Good Things is undeniably less accurate about the last days of the "Marks" marriage, but it might be more accurate about the early days of their courtship. The problem with the Jinx is that it has to use modern testimonials to frame Robert's marriage to Cathie, and since everyone now knows that he probably killed her no one is ever going to look directly into a camera and say "oh, they used to be so happy together!" However, it is quite possible that they were actually in love when they first started dating, and thus All Good Things' ability to recreate the past however it wants to allows it more leeway to film their courtship as it was, not how we remember it now. All Good Things is more blatant about the way it is rewriting history, but you can never trust the human memory to be completely accurate about the past, so it isn't automatically less truthful than The Jinx.

Both All Good Things and the Jinx are interesting but flawed films on their own. All Good Things is a compellingly moody romance for most of it's first hour but it ultimately tries to cram too many stories into a too small space, and while the Jinx is consistently haunting it often feels a bit manipulative. (In particular, it seems to lie by omission a lot.) But if you put them together you get a very compelling total product, one that asks complicated questions about the nature of artistic license, about how sympathetic we should be towards reprehensible people, and about how a small shift in perspective can have major implications on what kind of justice we want for a specific crime. These two movies don't necessarily have all the answers to the questions they raise - but then again, true crime stories rarely do, regardless of whether or not they are completely true.

Winner: All Good Things: Me

Winner: The Jinx: Me

All Good Things on IMDB

The Jinx on IMDB