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​Death Letter: Jarecki Finds His Perfect “Jinx”

Cinema | June 3rd, 2015

The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (2015)

WARNING: The following review reveals key plot information. Read only if you have seen “The Jinx.”

The bombshell revelation that concludes Andrew Jarecki’s HBO series “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst” occurs when the title subject uses the bathroom while wearing a hot mic. Hilariously, weirdly, but somehow not surprisingly, the incident mirrors the gag in “The Naked Gun” when Leslie Nielsen’s Frank Drebin noisily relieves himself during a press conference.

During Durst’s own caught-on-tape moment, the millionaire real estate heir and alleged multiple murderer, long suspected in the disappearance of his wife and the slaying of his close friend, says, “There it is. You’re caught. You’re right, of course. But, you can’t imagine. Arrest him. I don’t know what’s in the house. Oh, I want this. What a disaster. He was right. I was wrong. And the burping. I’m having difficulty with the question. What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”

Whew. What to make of it? Is the recording admissible evidence? Was that the last thing he said when the mic was on or is there an edit for the sake of drama? How long did the filmmakers hold on to that content, and the misspelled “Beverley” envelopes to which Durst was heard reacting, before sharing them with authorities? Was Durst confessing or just imagining a hypothetical conversation with Jarecki? Clearly, Jarecki hit the jackpot by finding, as Sean T. Collins so perfectly put it, “a documentarian’s unicorn.”

The creepy, entitled Durst is remote and aloof, but he also appears to crave attention – chattering and spouting against the advice of his legal team. Jarecki might work a little too hard at the outset to build sympathy for the belching elitist with the “lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes” of a great white shark. And yet for every stranger-than-fiction inclusion, from cross-dressing and sandwich shoplifting to getting away with shooting, dismembering and disposing of Morris Black, Jarecki leaves out stuff like Durst urinating on a CVS cash register and “drenching a candy display” in what the latter hysterically described as a “medical mishap.” Indeed.

In her “New Yorker” essay on the end of “The Jinx,” Rebecca Mead takes the position that the audiences of “quasi-journalistic entertainments” engage in an ethically suspect symbiosis. Mead takes aim at the filmmakers as well as HBO subscribers, writing, “…every viewer who is not too stupid or too full of himself to know what was going on knows that what we did was morally indefensible.”

Similar outrage is often leveled at “The Act of Killing,” dividing opinion within the documentary filmmaking community, especially when it comes to the manner or extent to which cinema can/cannot and should/should not be used to reach for or uncover the “truth.” Underneath a great deal of the ire is questionable outrage at the “manipulations” of the moviemaker, as if the construction of any document is not already fraught with the subjectivity of “this-and-not-that.” Are there strict boundaries when it comes to infotainment?

Throughout the course of the public’s fascination with “The Jinx,” Jarecki has been accused of any number of perceived violations of the unstated but assumed codes that govern nonfiction storytelling. Critics have pointed out the stylistic similarities between “The Jinx” and the lowbrow, lurid, true crime content that fills out episodes of “Dateline” and comparable network and cable programming.

From the slow-motion repetition of reenactments (the execution of Susan Berman stands out as one particularly glaring example) to the collection of photographs and documents arranged for greatest emotional impact, Jarecki embraces techniques that Mead thinks contribute to an “extralegal spectacle.”

One thing is certain: “The Jinx” is far more entertaining than “All Good Things,” Jarecki’s fictionalized version of the story that piqued the interest of Robert Durst enough for him to reach out to the filmmaker and initiate the long, strange trip leading to Durst’s arrest on March 14, 2015.

“The Jinx” can be seen on HBO.

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