She’s never going to be one of us.
—Sanford Marks (Frank Langella)
The shift from documentary to narrative film doesn’t always come easy. (Just look at Seth Gordon, transitioning from The King of Kong to Four Christmases.) All the better, then, that when Andrew Jarecki decided to take the leap into fiction, he did it with a story drawn from real life. And not only that, the story—with its clammy-close family ties and tightly held secrets—isn’t so dissimilar from that told by his disturbing documentary, Capturing the Friedmans.
All Good Things is inspired by the much-reported case of Robert Durst, whose family was a powerful fiefdom in New York real estate. Though he was suspected of murdering his wife, who disappeared in 1982, he was never indicted for it. Marc Smerling and Marcus Hinchey’s script (which gives all the characters new names and so potentially escapes a threatened lawsuit) builds on Durst’s testimony from another murder trial. Ryan Gosling plays the Durst stand-in, David Marks, and it’s in his heavy-lidded, impenetrable stare and reluctant voice that the film finds its unsteady anchor.
“David, the heir apparent” is a wreck in 1971, when the film opens. Wearing a tuxedo with a bowtie so large and clown-floppy it can’t be excused even by the decade, he’s called by his father to check on the plumbing in one of the Marks’ more dilapidated apartments. Although the family owns much of the real estate in midtown that would later be prettied up as the new Times Square, they make plenty of money from below-the-line properties, falling-down tenements and peepshows. The least responsible of the Marks brothers, David has the bad luck to be doing the odds and ends for these properties, and also the good luck that the particular apartment he visits at the film’s start has in it a pert blond by the name of Katie (Kirsten Dunst).
Later that night, David is shepherding Katie around a fancy ball. Here the mayor praises the Marks’ supposed efforts to restore Time Square to something resembling its former glory, and Marks pere, Sanford (an appropriately lurching Frank Langella), makes clear exactly how much he disapproves of David’s date and inability to glad-hand. Although David’s inner turmoil is visible, his obvious relief at having met Katie almost makes one think that she could turn it all around for him. “She likes everything I do,” David blurts out to a friend, one his few spontaneous-seeming moments within the film’s constricted, cloying world of old money and disappointment.
A brief interlude where the young couple runs “All Good Things,” a health food store in Vermont, makes for another respite. But soon family prerogatives and responsibilities are reasserted, so that Katie is ensconced in a dinner party-ready Manhattan apartment (with corresponding lake house upstate, of course), while David works as bagman for his father, carrying briefcases of cash out of the bottom-feeding establishments that Jarecki films with a great attention to detail. The decade tilts uncomfortably towards the 1980s via cocaine and disco parties, as David’s antisocial traits and hatred of responsibility (exacerbated by a heavy pot habit and dark memories of witnessing his mother’s suicide) curl him ever inward.
Repeatedly, Jarecki shows his skill at reconstructing the era in all its ugly drabness. The Marks offices where David twists about in skittish discomfort are greying tombs, and the Times Square scenes pulsate with a purgatorial gleam. Nearly the only shafts of light are seen in fleeting visits with Katie’s middle-class family out in Long Island (the outfits and décor bright-tacky, as opposed to dour-tacky), scenes whose stark difference from his own home life suggest why David continues to retreat from all of it.
Jarecki loses control of his story when David loses his moorings. Gosling’s performance is so bottled-up to that point, that when Katie disappears, his still-contained presence alone can’t carry the remainder of the film. This is particularly true when David’s increasingly bizarre behavior pushes the movie towards campy, true-crime-style reenactment. The film’s effort not to provide too-easy explanations for David’s behavior leaves a gap its queasy, claustrophobic mood can’t make up for. Gosling’s performance might be one of the year’s most precise, but it leaves David looking blank.