Tonight on HBO: The Jinx
Starting tonight (Sunday, February 8 at 8pm) on HBO, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst begins its six-episode run. Here's a short trailer to get you started:
The Inevitable Serial Comparison
The Jinx is a serialized documentary about true crime, presented in six episodes. It follows Robert Durst, member of a wealthy family of New York City real estate owners. Durst is remarkable in many ways, but the most prominent is that he has been implicated in three murder cases (one in which he dismembered his next door neighbor and disposed of the body), but he's a free man.
There's a timing coincidence in seeing this documentary series begin right after the true crime podcast Serial ended. There are elements in common between the two projects: re-litigating old murder cases; prominent involvement of the journalist in the story itself; and ambiguity about what might have happened. The primary difference is that we're dealing with a very privileged man who is currently not serving time; indeed, the core question at the outset of the series seems to be whether he should be.
The documentary is extremely compelling (at least the first two episodes—all that I've been able to review so far). It draws the viewer into an investigation, much like Serial. It delivers the same powerful urge to get right into the next episode, which makes it painful to know that this series is being released over the span of six weeks (if it were released all at once, this would be the world's first binge-watched documentary). I don't expect The Jinx to be the next Serial (I presume more people have access to free podcasts than HBO), but it has the potential to draw in a similar set of viewers, who will argue various angles of Durst's case(s). One notable difference is that Durst is a radically different person from Adnan Sayed, the central figure in Serial. I'll just leave it at that for now.
Andrew Jarecki is best known for his documentary Capturing the Friedmans, which explored a child-molestation case (it's a complex and difficult film; if you haven't seen it, it's worth looking into but may be triggering). He also produced the documentary Catfish, which might raise an eyebrow about his interest in telling stories about things that are not what they seem. And he directed the drama All Good Things, based on the disappearance of Robert Durst's first wife Kathleen.
As we see in the first episode of The Jinx, Durst saw All Good Things, called up Jarecki, and asked to be interviewed. Perhaps Durst saw Jarecki as a sympathetic figure. It's unclear (at least by the end of episode two) exactly what Jarecki thinks, aside from his willingness to interview Durst and make a film about it with an eye toward understanding this complex, decades-long story. Of course, this is where the dramatic tension of the whole film comes from: where are we going with this? Ultimately, will The Jinx attempt to (re-)exonerate Durst, or will it condemn him, or will it end up somewhere in between? I'm very keen to find out, and I have more to say on this below.
(Note: Marc Smerling often produces alongside Jarecki, and he's along for this film as well.)
The Influence of Errol Morris
Allow me a moment to talk about documentary and how far we've come in three decades of film. In 1988, Errol Morris released The Thin Blue Line, a groundbreaking documentary about a murder case in which Randall Dale Adams had been convicted. Morris's film ultimately led to the release of Adams, after he had been wrongfully imprisoned for a dozen years. Here's a trailer for The Thin Blue Line:
The Thin Blue Line is notable for many reasons, especially when we look at The Jinx today. A key part of The Thin Blue Line is its use of reenactment, which led to its disqualification for an Academy Award; because the film used reenactment it was classified as a "Nonfiction" film. (At the time, the prevailing attitude was that reenactment did not belong in documentary.) Today, we accept reenactment as a key tool of documentary—it's all over The Jinx, and lines are often blurry as to what's reenactment, what's a crime scene photo, and so on. But in 1988, Morris couldn't catch a break, because apparently the Academy couldn't buy that an honest documentary could contain actors reenacting a scene.
A key visual from The Thin Blue Line is the image of a tape recorder, while dialogue plays from the tape. We see a very similar image in The Jinx, when we hear prison phone calls between Durst and his second wife.
Yet another parallel is that both films deal with murders in Texas, and include interviews with the accused. And we talk to various attorneys and investigators who dealt with the cases. And we try to understand, as best we can, what the truth is and how that interacts with the legal system. Morris believes that finding the truth is his job. We're not sure yet what Jarecki believes his responsibility is in The Jinx.
It's wonderful that in the years since 1988, the template set out by Morris is now a completely normal way to present a documentary; no one today would dispute that The Jinx is a documentary. I don't know what Jarecki is going to do in the remainder of his six-part series (again, I've only seen the first two bits), but it's clear that Morris's methodology has become so mainstream that we barely notice how new it really is. Let's just pause for a minute and remember The Thin Blue Line (it's streaming on Netflix, by the way), and consider comparing these films. (At the very least, it's something you can watch while you're waiting for the next episode of The Jinx.)
(Incidentally, there's also a remarkable parallel between Morris's documentaries The Fog of War and The Unknown Known and Jarecki's films All Good Things and The Jinx—in the case of Morris's films, the latter resulted from Donald Rumsfeld seeing the former and apparently volunteering to sit down for an extended interview. The Jinx has a strikingly similar origin story, after Jarecki made All Good Things and, as previously mentioned, Durst called him up, resulting in a second film.)
It's hard to review a film when you've only seen a third of it. So I'm reserving final judgement for now. What I can say for sure is that the first third of The Jinx is utterly compelling; it's dark, bizarre, packed with ambiguity, and it left me pleading with HBO to send over the rest. (They declined, with polite regrets.) The Durst cases are fascinating, and the interview with Durst (shown starting in the second episode) is downright weird; as an audience we're constantly trying to figure out what in the world is going on with this guy. I'm curious to hear more of what he'll say, how he explains his behavior, and how the filmmakers will deal with all of it. It's hard not to squirm in your seat, knowing that this is true crime, that this guy sawed his neighbor into pieces and now he's sitting around, blithely saying that "I did not tell the whole truth, nobody tells the whole truth." Well...I think most people at least try to, especially when they're talking to the police! Alarm bells go off constantly, but simply knowing that there are four more installments suggests that there will be more twists and turns here.
Jarecki says this series will not end like Serial did. At a screening, he said, "At the end of episode six, you will know what happened." I can't wait.
Where to Watch
The Jinx starts tonight (Sunday, February 8 at 8pm) on HBO, then airs weekly in six installments. If you're into binge-watching (and/or hate cliffhangers), wait six weeks and then fire up HBO GO.