The first things one notices about Robert Durst, the enigmatic center of HBO’s riveting documentary series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, are his eyes. His pupils are massive and jet-black, almost demonic in appearance, and there’s not a spark of life in them. The effect is unnerving but, more than that, they make Durst seem barely human. That, during his interviews with filmmaker Andrew Jarecki, he either twitches uncontrollably, blinking with aberrant speed, or doesn’t blink at all, just adds to the overall impression that, as his former mother-in-law puts it, the guy is a total “oddball.”
Is he a killer, though? That is a different question entirely, as well as one that The Jinx, despite focusing on Durst’s connection to a string of unsolved disappearances and murders, may not be capable of (or even interested in) answering during its six-hour runtime. After all, he is still walking around a free man today, having evaded convictions related to the three murders he’s suspected of committing. Jarecki’s series is a fascinating case study and an addictively gripping whodunit in the vein of popular podcast Serial, but it would be surprising to see it emerge with any concrete conclusions. Instead, one senses that The Jinx‘s goals are more about diving deeply into its subject’s stranger-than-fiction life than rendering a verdict.
The first ‘chapter’ of The Jinx, aptly titled “The Body in the Bay,” kicks off with a scene straight out of True Detective. The year is 2001, and a human torso, minus the head and limbs, has been discovered by a young boy in Galveston Bay, Texas. The ensuing investigation, gruesomely recounted by local police officers, turns up the rest of the body, chopped up and placed in trash bags, and a bizarre connection to Durst, the reclusive heir to a huge real estate fortune, who had no business being in Texas yet ended up in a Galveston apartment, dressed as a woman (he allegedly donned a wig to pose as “Dorothy Ciner,” who lived next to the eventually identified victim). Even more bizarrely, Durst’s past unearths some disturbing information – in 1982, he was suspected in the disappearance of his then-wife Kathie, and investigators also connected him to an unsolved 2000 murder.
The Jinx probably wouldn’t have happened without the intervention of Durst himself, who contacted Jarecki shortly before the premiere of the filmmaker’s 2010 thriller All Good Things, which essentially fictionalized Kathie’s disappearance and starred Ryan Gosling as a thinly veiled Durst figure, offering to make himself available for a series of interviews. The series documents the strangeness of those early talks, in which Durst expresses a desire to finally speak for himself after a lifetime of listening to others say whatever they pleased about him.
What he actually has to say, though, is still somewhat opaque. The Jinx attempts to get under his skin (though the man’s blank stares and peculiar speech patterns may have him getting under the audience’s, instead). It explores his dark past as a child of privilege, brought up in a dysfunctional family by a man so cruel he forced a seven-year-old Durst to witness his mother’ suicide jump from the roof of their Scarsdale, New York mansion. Family members refused to be interviewed, but Kathie’s suspicious friends and many of the people who investigated Durst paint a picture of an eerily eccentric and often unpleasant snake-in-the-grass sort, who exerted extreme control over everyone in his life.
There’s certainly something off about him – that’s clear from the interviews alone. “I didn’t want kids around,” he openly states, explaining why he strong-armed Kathie into getting an abortion. “I didn’t want to raise children… Somehow, I thought it would be a jinx.” Jarecki attempts to shed further light on that phrase: “That you were going to be a jinx for them?” Durst seems to consider that for a moment, his eyes darting around, before he agrees. Whatever the guy actually meant (and it seems that Jarecki may have inadvertently given him a more respectable explanation than Durst himself had in mind), the statement hangs in the air.
Jarecki has no shortage of material to draw on for The Jinx. If anything, one gets the sense that six hours may not be enough to fully flesh out such a complicated and profoundly curious individual. Still, the filmmaker makes the involving, if not always fitting, decision to punctuate his interviews with reenactments of key moments (like a fight between Durst and Kathie that escalated to pushing and shoving), set to a suspenseful horror-movie score. His most theatrical touch, though, comes in the form of a haunting title sequence, set to the Eels’ biting “Fresh Blood,” that almost puts True Detective‘s opening to shame.
Whether the filmmaker didn’t trust the potency of his interviews alone or simply thought The Jinx would be more engrossing with some added drama isn’t clear, but the choice to add extraneous cinematic details was hardly necessary. Durst’s life already feels like something dreamed up in a basement by David Fincher and the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock.
The Jinx, in how fearlessly it delves into the darkest corners of this monster’s mind, is a singularly compelling and chilling accomplishment, one that is going to be talked about and pulled apart for the rest of the year, by eager amateur sleuths and more discerning documentarians alike. If this is to be television’s answer to Serial (which, if we’re being totally honest, everyone knew was going to come from HBO), the only tragedy is that it will come to an end in a short six weeks. With any luck, though, this Jinx will haunt as much as it hypnotizes, setting a new high water mark for true-crime reporting and ushering in a new era of documentary filmmakers who aren’t afraid to peer into the dark eyes and darker minds of living enigmas like Durst.
The Jinx, in how fearlessly it delves into the mind of a man who may in fact be a monster, is a singularly compelling and chilling accomplishment.