Director Andrew Jarecki seeks out stories that thrive on a certain amount of ambiguity. Both All Good Things and his previous film, the documentary Capturing the Friedmans, are surrounded by a similar gray area: Both are true-crime stories where the guilt and innocence of their protagonists are not clear-cut. Jarecki then relishes alternately humanizing and vilifying his subjects, making them seem like pitiable broken people one moment, and monsters who perpetrated heinous crimes the next.
In this case, the film’s main subject is David Marks (Ryan Gosling), based on the real life of real estate heir Robert Durst. Marks, who witnesses the suicide of his mother at an early age and is raised by cold, business-minded father Sanford (Frank Langella), lives the incredibly privileged life of someone whose family owns a large portion of Times Square in New York City (pre-Disneyfication, but still). He meets a young bohemian from Long Island, Katie (Kirsten Dunst), and the two marry and briefly run off to Vermont and run a health-food store before Marks is pulled back into the family business. (“All Good Things” is the name of their shop.) Relationship problems ensue, and eventually Katie goes missing—and others turn up dead.
The story has more in common with Capturing the Friedmans than just the true-crime genre. Both stories take place within a certain milieu of wealth and status in the tony suburbs outside of New York City in the ‘80s. All Good Things is allowed to explore the class issue in greater detail by pitting Katie Marks against David Marks. He grows up in a sprawling Westchester estate and later has his pick of New York City apartments to live in, but aspires to a life of hippiedom, looks disheveled and ill-matched for a tuxedo, and tries hard not to enter the family business.
She is the opposite: an ambitious girl with a big, warm family from a modest town in Long Island who looks like a movie star who belongs in the upper echelons of society. When the two come into conflict, though, outward appearances don’t matter, and Marks’s wealth equates to ultimate control. He isolates her by cutting off her funds. When she tries to improve her situation by enrolling in medical school, she disappears.
The biggest difference between All Good Things and Capturing the Friedmans is that All Good Things is deliberately a work of fiction. Basically, though, that means that actors are stand-ins for the main players, and the names are changed. Jarecki takes very few liberties, if any, with the events that take place in the film. There are no composite characters, and nothing is added for drama.
An extra feature reveals that Jarecki and his screenwriters spent two and a half years researching the movie, as if it was a documentary. (Another feature shows you some of the first-hand interviews with some of the people they consulted.) Items that seems as if they were clearly fabricated for the purposes of the movie—such as a scene where Marks drags Katie from a family gathering by her hair in front of all of her relatives—turn out to have happened, been verified, and fact-checked.
Many directors fudge true stories by introducing made-up or re-imagined material for effect; Jarecki fudges his fictional work by basically making it as true and accurate as possible. The director is lucky that he found a story that doesn’t need much fictionalizing to still be so engrossing.
In a way, however, this attention to detail might account for the movie’s biggest flaw. The film is framed by courtroom scenes that, if anything, detract from the tension set up by the true-life events. It seems that these scenes exist to provide an excuse to do a voice-over and have a lawyer come out and point-blank ask Marks to explain his motivations for certain events. A DVD feature later reveals that the transcripts from that trial—2,000 pages worth—provided much of the source material for the film. The movie doesn’t need these direct explanations, and Jarecki should have trusted the story to shine through without them.
On the other hand, the amount of research that went into the film is fascinating to hear about. There are multiple DVD features that take viewers through the process of putting the film together, including a commentary with Jarecki and two co-writers/co-producers, a series of interviews with the filmmakers (and a separate one with Jarecki alone), and a series of interviews with first-hand sources. Taken together, these provide an alternate version of the film, a back-door documentary where all of the real names are restored to the characters.
The most captivating DVD feature, though, is a second commentary track: one with Jarecki and Robert Durst. It’s chilling to hear him make casual remarks about a movie that basically fingers him as a cold-hearted killer. Yet Durst doesn’t seem phased. As new characters pop up, he responds with recognition: “That’s Seymour,” or “There’s Igor.” Such normal interactions certainly work toward Jarecki’s goal of humanization. These scenes, however, transition straight into others where brutal violence takes place—such as the hair-pulling incident mentioned above—and Durst agrees that the way it’s depicted on screen is basically what happened, or “close enough,” without much emotion in his voice.
Concerning his guilt or innocence, he maintains Jarecki’s gray area: Though he continually refers to his wife’s “disappearance” (as opposed to murder), never once does he say that he’s not the one responsible for it.