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.

Robert Durst. Photo courtesy of HBO.

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.

The Director

Andrew Jarecki and Robert Durst. Photo courtesy of HBO.

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.)

Image courtesy of HBO.

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.

Robert Durst. Photo courtesy of HBO.

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.

Peter Elliott
Authorities Have Cracked a Bizarre Cold Case That Could Have Ties to the Zodiac Killer
Peter Elliott
Peter Elliott

One of the strangest cold cases in Ohio, if not the United States, has now been solved—but pieces of the puzzle remain.

In 2002, a man known as Joseph Newton Chandler III fatally shot himself in the bathroom of his tiny apartment in Eastlake, Ohio. His body wasn't found for a week, by which point it was badly decomposed, and police were unable to obtain fingerprints. He hadn't left a note, and police found more than $80,000 in his bank account. A private investigator, hired by a probate judge to find surviving family members, soon discovered that the man known as Chandler wasn't Chandler at all—he'd stolen the identity of an 8-year-old boy from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who died in a car crash in Texas in 1945.

Since then, rumors have been building. Police felt the man was most likely a fugitive on the run—who else leaves $80,000 in a bank account and hides behind a stolen identity? Some said he might have been a Nazi war criminal. Others thought that he could be the Zodiac Killer, based on his likeness to a police sketch of the infamous murderer who left a trail of terror through Northern California in the 1960s and 1970s. (And, in fact, Chandler was in California at the time of the crimes.) But after the initial round of research following the suicide, the case went cold.

Today, U.S. Marshal Peter Elliott announced that his office and a team of forensic genealogists had cracked the case. Yet they've only solved the first part of the mystery‚ and are appealing to the public for help connecting the rest of the dots.

Their research shows that the man known as Chandler was actually Robert Ivan Nichols of New Albany, Indiana. A Purple Heart Navy veteran who served in World War II, Nichols had disappeared from his family in 1965. He had left his wife and sons the year prior, telling her, "In due time, you'll know why," according to Elliott. In March 1965, he wrote to his parents, saying he was "well and happy" and asking them not to worry about him. The same month, he mailed an envelope to his son Phillip, which contained only a penny. There was no note. It was the last his family would ever hear of him.

According to family lore, the war had taken a heavy toll on Nichols, and he burned his uniforms in the backyard after returning from service. He had no criminal history. Associates who worked with him as "Chandler" described him as a loner, someone who refused to let others get close. Co-workers said he would frequently disappear for days, and even weeks, at a time. He kept a bag packed and ready in his apartment at all times.

After disappearing from his family, he traveled to Dearborn, Michigan, and then to the San Francisco and Richmond, California areas. He assumed the Chandler identity in Rapid City, South Dakota, in 1978, when he applied for a Social Security card using personal information (including the birthdate) of the boy who died in 1945. At the time, such frauds were easier to pull off, since Social Security cards were rarely given to children, and so the real Joseph Newton Chandler III had never been given a Social Security number.

Robert Ivan Nichols circa 1992
Robert Ivan Nichols circa 1992
Peter Elliott

The break in the case came only after painstaking detective work that involved both sophisticated DNA techniques and pounding the pavement. When Elliott took on the case in 2014 at the request of the Eastlake police, he discovered Chandler had had colon cancer surgery in 2000. He sent tissue samples taken at that time to the local medical examiner, who obtained a DNA profile. Unfortunately, there were no matches between the profile and various national criminal databases.

Stumped, in 2016 Elliott turned to forensic genealogists Dr. Colleen Fitzpatrick and Dr. Margaret Press of California-based IdentiFinders and the DNA Doe Project, a non-profit humanitarian initiative created to help identify Jane and John Does and return them to their families. (Fitzpatrick also helped crack the case of identity thief Lori Erica Ruff in 2016.) Despite a badly degraded sample, they used Y chromosome genealogy to trace a family line that indicated the dead man's last name was likely Nichols or some variation. In March 2018, authorities tracked down a Phillip Nichols in Ohio, who provided a DNA sample. The sample matched with that of the dead man, indicating the pair were father and son. Phillip said at a news conference today that he instantly recognized photos of "Chandler" as his father.

Although the cold case has been solved, mystery remains. Why did Nichols abandon his family? Why did he end his life? What accounts for the rest of his odd behavior? Although it's clear he wasn't a Nazi war criminal, there's still a chance—however slight—that he could be connected to crimes in California, given his residence at the time of the Zodiac Killer's activities. "There has to be a reason he assumed the name of a deceased 8-year-old boy and went into hiding for so many years," Elliott says. When asked about the potential Zodiac Killer connection, Elliott responded, "I can't say for sure that he is, and I cannot say for sure that he's not [the killer]. We have been working with San Francisco, [and the] Department of Justice, but that's a question for them, that's their investigation."

Elliott says he is appealing for the public's help in tracing the rest of Nichols' life and mystery. Tips can be sent to the U.S. Marshals at 216-522-4482.

What’s the Difference Between Prison and Jail?

Many people use the terms jail and prison interchangeably, and while both terms refer to areas where people are held, there's a substantial difference between the two methods of incarceration. Where a person who is accused of a crime is held, and for how long, is a factor in determining the difference between the two—and whether a person is held in a jail or a prison is largely determined by the severity of the crime they have committed.

A jail (or, for our British friends, a gaol) refers to a small, temporary holding facility—run by local governments and supervised by county sheriff departments—that is designed to detain recently arrested people who have committed a minor offense or misdemeanor. A person can also be held in jail for an extended period of time if the sentence for their offense is less than a year. There are currently 3163 local jail facilities in the United States.

A jail is different from the similarly temporary “lockup”—sort of like “pre-jail”—which is located in local police departments and holds offenders unable to post bail, people arrested for public drunkenness who are kept until they are sober, or, most importantly, offenders waiting to be processed into the jail system.

A prison, on the other hand, is usually a large state- or federal-run facility meant to house people convicted of a serious crime or felony, and whose sentences for those crimes surpass 365 days. A prison could also be called a “penitentiary,” among other names.

To be put in a state prison, a person must be convicted of breaking a state law. To be put in a federal prison, a person must be convicted of breaking federal law. Basic amenities in a prison are more extensive than in a jail because, obviously, an inmate is likely to spend more than a year of his or her life confined inside a prison. As of 2012, there were 4575 operating prisons in the U.S.—the most in the world. The country with the second highest number of operating prisons is Russia, which has just 1029 facilities.

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