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All Good Things

A couple of weeks ago, the entertainment section of the New York Times offered readers a little bit of strange, even creepy information. A feature about Andrew Jarecki’s new, fact-based film, All Good Things, included a response from its notorious real life central character about the film’s merits. Robert Durst said it wasn’t bad.

Now in his 60s, Durst was born into a New York family with very important real estate holdings in mid-town Manhattan—according to this film, it ran the fourth most important commercial real property firm in the city. He’s also intimately associated with the disappearance and/or murder of three people, including his wife, Kathie. Jarecki’s film, his feature debut, virtually convicts him of these crimes. But, given its portrayal of Durst, his guarded approval may not be entirely surprising.

In the mid 1970s, Durst (renamed David Marks here, and played by Ryan Gosling) was one of two sons of a man who himself had inherited and controlled a real estate empire, including holdings in the Times Square district. By most accounts, young Durst had little or no interest in helping to run the firm, and after he met and married Kathie (now Katie, played by Kirsten Dunst), he moved with her to rural New England to run a health food store. Lured, pestered, or, in the film’s view, strong-armed by his not-so-benevolently dictatorial father (Frank Langella) back to New York, he and Kathie began to experience marital difficulties that intensified. One night, in 1982, she disappeared, supposedly after leaving their Westchester County home for their New York apartment. She has never been found, and no one has ever been charged in the case.

But about 10 years ago, Westchester District Attorney Jeanine Pirro announced that some new evidence had prompted her to reopen the case. (Durst may profess equanimity about All Good Things, but Republican Pirro, who ran for New York Attorney General against Andrew Cuomo in 2006, may have a less laid-back reaction. The film seems to imply she colluded with the Durst family while ostensibly investigating the disappearance.)

Durst left—fled, some say—to Galveston, Texas. Not long after, the deaths of two other people with whom he had close connections were reported. He has never been convicted in any of these cases.

Jarecki’s attraction to this raw material may be consistent with his previous interests. His Academy Award-nominated documentary Capturing the Friedmans dealt with a Long Island father and son arrested and imprisoned for sexually molesting boys. Jarecki skillfully wove together elements of ruthless police and prosecutorial indifference to considerations of procedure and justice, American sexual hysteria, and more private material involving largely unacknowledged but intense family dynamics.

All Good Things makes no bones about the filmmaker’s belief in Durst’s guilt in several heinous crimes, including the pivotal killing of a pet dog. But what seems to interest Jarecki most is the dark, festering, Freudian family history which Durst experienced in his boyhood and youth. He focuses especially on his radically warped relations with his power-wielding autocratic father, and the shocking death of his mother when he was 10. These are made to seem key to what later happened. As the movie presents it, David/Robert was so wounded by these traumas that if subsequent brutal events weren’t foreordained, the psychological and social groundwork for them was laid before he met Katie/Kathie.

The case that Jarecki and his screenwriters (Marcus Hinchey and Marc Smerling) make isn’t unpersuasive, as far as it goes. But neither is it satisfactory. Jarecki’s film ends up being too melodramatic, too speculative, yet under-dramatized.

The first half, with its fairly vivid scenes of young love and hope, then well-wrought depictions of interpersonal stress that becomes more ominously tense, is markedly better than the last 40-50 minutes. Jarecki is a proficient enough scene stager, and the performance he’s got from Dunst conveys a troubled, eventually dire poignance. If hers is the film’s best performance, Langella has given shape and texture to what could have been a thinner stereotype. Gosling is more problematic, although the primary fault may not be his. David is presented as so subdued, repressed, and yet twisted that it’s hard to make sense of the character, even with the Oedipal rationale. This becomes more of a liability in the second half when he descends into a sometimes bizarre eccentricity and depravity. It’s clear enough that he’s a monster of conscienceless narcissism, but Jarecki seems to want us to retain some sympathy, or at least understanding, for him. All Good Things doesn’t work all this out. Oddly, it’s the elder Marks who finally comes off as at least modestly sympathetic.

The last half of the film is increasingly like a true-crime television docudrama, and one may wonder if in his heart Jarecki didn’t really want to make another documentary.

Watch the trailer for All Good Things

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