“I didn’t want children … I thought it would be a jinx.”
— Robert Durst
There’s no straight line through Robert Durst’s story. Instead, there is a curlicue leading from a privileged Manhattan childhood to Dynasty-style power struggles, a lengthy stretch of cross-dressing, and potential connections to three murders. The baffling particulars of Durst’s case and his resolute odd-man-out nature come with the added coating of unreality provided by a life of extreme wealth. It’s a captivating story, and a difficult one to tackle without succumbing to its and his Sphinxian spell. Fittingly, the first two episodes of Andrew Jarecki’s six-part documentary, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, don’t reveal whether or not it will succumb.
The introductory episode, “A Body in the Bay”, begins as a compact and linear piece of storytelling, with a format taken straight from the primetime TV true-crime playbook. Jarecki, best known for Capturing the Friedmans, weaves together crime scene photos, voiceover, ominous shots of darkened streets, and dispassionate interviews with mostly male and middle-aged law-enforcement professionals to paint the scene. A headless and limbless torso is discovered floating off a pier in Galveston, Texas in 2001. In a shockingly simple one-two-three chain of discoveries, the police identify the torso as 71-year-old Morris Black and pin their suspicions on his neighbor, a deaf-mute woman named Deborah Ciner. She turned out to actually be Durst. After he’s arrested, Durst promptly pays the $250,000 USD bond and takes off.
As the Black murder case crumbles from a we-got-him to a what-is-this story, Jarecki starts spiraling the narrative into an investigation of Durst’s curious character and seemingly random hostilities. The oddities of Durst’s escape pile up: he travels under Black’s name and is finally arrested stealing a hoagie while carrying $38,000 USD in cash. People who know him seem perplexed, too. Audio of Durst’s second wife, Debrah Lee Charatan, reveals her winding up Durst against his relatives in a manner common to situations where family fortunes magnify and distort the usual sibling rivalries and resentments. His younger brother Doug appears in deposition footage looking exhausted, saying he once hired a bodyguard because of Robert’s “bizarre” behavior. For his part, Galveston detective Cody Cazales thinks Durst is a killer who gets no joy from it, only murdering when he feels it’s necessary.
The Durst who appears in the lengthy one-on-one interview with Jarecki is hard to read. He seems meekly blasé; someone describes him as looking like “a librarian”. One law-enforcement official opines, “He’s not crazy, he’s diabolical.” The portrait that The Jinx begins to present is of a man who is intelligent and clueless, deftly cunning in manipulating others and incredibly naïve about the world.
That presentation solidifies in the second episode, “Poor Little Rich Boy”. Jarecki dials the timeframe back, covering Durst’s childhood up through the 1982 disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen. “It never left me,” he says about watching his mother jump off their roof to her death when he was seven. The film jumps ahead almost too quickly to Durst’s marriage to Kathleen. Nearly everybody interviewed describes a troubled relationship, with a controlling and paranoid husband and numerous knockdown fights.
In his reedy, raspy voice, Durst discusses the marriage up to and including the night of her disappearance in dispassionate and almost contemptuous terms. Even decades later, describing dinners with her family, Durst can’t hide his resentment at having to socialize with people he clearly considered inferiors. His flat bitterness about not just everything in his past, but almost any instance when he has not been allowed to have his way, infects the entire episode.
“Poor Little Rich Boy” provides a companion piece to Jarecki’s first crack at the Durst story. All Good Things (2010) was a fuzzed-over fictionalized take on Kathleen’s disappearance, starring Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst. Jarecki reveals near the end of The Jinx’s first episode that All Good Things gave birth to this project, as Durst was so enamored of the first version that he called Jarecki up and said he wanted to be interviewed.
That origin story presents something of a conundrum. It’s not uncommon that true crime stories involve exploitation and glorification. But we might wonder whether The Jinx, by providing Durst a platform, supports a possible multiple murderer. There are undeniably pulpy elements here, from the teasing out of material through multiple episodes to the melodramatic True Detective-esque credits sequence and crime reenactments. So far, it appears the film offers a spectrum of voices, some countering Durst’s.
New York Times reporter Charles Bagli, who wrote about Durst, says here, “He’s sort of a guy who walks through life and thinks he can do whatever he wants.” If The Jinx does its job right, by the end of the series, viewers may have their own ideas, not only about Durst’s guilt or what he “thinks”, but more compellingly, how such problems might be framed and understood.