Thursday, March 19, 2015

Jinxed: the Life and Deaths of Robert Durst

This HBO series, a six-program true crime documentary, limps along in an unsatisfying manner until its penultimate and, then, final episode -- these last two programs deliver on the lurid promise of the material and yield electrifying revelations.  But the show's climax, and the attendant hoopla (including Robert Durst's arrest on March 14, 2014 the eve of the last episode) raise disturbing questions that threaten, perhaps, to overshadow the program's legitimate accomplishments.  The series is directed by Andrew Jurecki and Marc Smerling whose film-making style follows closely the work of a much more rigorous, and morally acute, documentary director, Errol Morris.  In Jinxed, Jurecki and Smerling address three apparent homicides, all associated with Robert Durst.  In the seventies, Durst's first wife simply vanished.  Her body was never found and everyone who has thought about the case assumes that Robert Durst murdered her.  In the film, Durst acknowledges telling various lies about his wife's disappearance but steadfastly denies killing her.  Around 1994, an ambitious prosecutor sought to reopen the investigation into the disappearance of Durst's wife.  At that time, Durst was close friends with a woman living in Beverly Hills, California.  Authorities planned to meet with this woman, a would-be screenwriter and the daughter of a prominent mobster, apparently for the purpose of probing what Durst might have told her about events involving his vanished first wife.  Just before the woman could be interviewed, she was killed execution-style in her home.  Again, suspicion focused on Durst, but no evidence could be found linking him with the homicide.  In 2002, Durst admitted killing his landlord, an elderly man named Morris Black.  Durst hacked the body into parts and pitched it into Galveston Bay.  Durst, then, shaved his head and eyebrows, donned a woman's wig, and fled dressed as an old lady.  A crooked as a dog's hindleg, Durst paused to shoplift a chicken sandwich and was apprehended.  Tried for the homicide in Galveston, he was acquitted of murder -- he claimed self-defense and, because the dead man's head was never found (and couldn't be forensically analyzed), he was acquitted of that charge.  (The prosecutors were outgunned by Durst's lawyer Dick Deguerin and botched their presentation of the evidence.)  This would be merely a sordid story with little or no resonance except for one important fact:  Durst is one of the wealthiest men in the United States, the despised heir to a Manhattan real estate fortune, and the brother of the man, Douglas Durst, who manages the Freedom Tower erected on the site of the World Trade Center.  Furthermore, although the documentary makers are circumspect on this point, the Durst family seems to have obstructed justice with respect to the investigation relating to the disappearance of Durst's first wife.  Robert Durst, a small wiry man whose face seems either classically patrician or strangely ferret-like depending upon the lighting and the camera angle, is estranged from his famous family.  After the death of his father, it seems, that other Durst family members concluded that Robert was potentially homicidal and retained armies of bodyguards to protect themselves from his depredations.  For reasons that are completely obscure and probably perverse, Robert Durst agreed to cooperate with the filmmakers, allowed them to interview him in depth for several hours, and, in the end, seems to confess, although in a particularly bizarre and shocking way, to committing all three murders.  A particularly irrefutable clue is unearthed by Jurecki and company in the last few minutes of the fifth episode and the sixth installment chronicles how, after a lapse of several years in the making of the film, Durst agrees to submit to a final interview with the film makers, with an outcome spectacularly catastrophic to him -- it's because of this final interview and its sequel that Durst is now in jail awaiting trial in Los Angeles with respect to the killing of the mobster's daughter.  (At the series' eerie climax, when Durst is confronted with seemingly irrefutable evidence of his guilt, the villain's features become spastic and he seems to gag, as if about to vomit on the camera -- it's as if his body is betraying the lies that he has maintained.  This sequence is similar to the terrifying last few minutes of Joel Oppenheimer's Act of Killing in which the protagonist's body seems about to burst apart under the nauseating pressure of the evil within.)

This is dynamite reality TV and so my reservations about the last two episodes require explanation.  First, Durst is trapped in the final scene and there is an unsavory element of betrayal about the way that the ambush is set for him.  Of course, Durst is a nasty fellow and, most likely, a serial killer and so it's difficult to be sympathetic to him.  But, nonetheless, Jurecki and Smerling lure Durst to the catastrophic interview under false pretenses and with a smiling show of deceitful friendliness.  The problem that their ambush poses to a morally alert viewer is this:  if Jurecki and Smerling are willing to lie to catch Durst, then, they signify that the ends justify the means.  And, if this is true, then, is their footage really honest, can you trust the images shown on the screen?  Second, and corollary to the first concern, is a mechanical question about how the incriminating sound-bite was recorded.  Earlier in the film, we have seen Durst muttering to himself unaware that his microphone was still "live."  At the end of the film, Durst goes into a toilet and makes devastating admissions to himself when he thinks that he is alone and isolated -- according to Jurecki and Smerling, the microphone was "live" when Durst entered the bathroom and, simply picked-up his bizarre schizophrenic colloquy with himself.  I don't buy this and don't trust the film maker's probity.  Indeed, I think the toilet was miked separately in the anticipation that Durst would talk to himself in that place.  Possibly, I am wrong, but there is something very peculiar about the way this sequence is represented on film.  Third, Jurecki and Smerling were in possession of incriminating evidence about a serial killer -- a man who, by their own statements, is dangerous and frightening.  But they didn't contact the authorities to disclose this evidence preferring to withhold the proof that Durst is a murderer until the last show of the six-part series -- that is, March 15, 2015, probably more than two years after the incriminating evidence was gathered.  (During this time frame, Durst could have killed another couple of people.)  Jurecki has claimed that he and Smerling were not aware that they had the taped admissions until six months or so before the show was broadcast -- their explanation for this surprising claim is that they were granted additional funding to hire an assistant to "go through and review" all of their footage and soundtrack information.  This seems very, very unlikely to me.  I think the most rational explanation for events documented in the movie is that the film makers knew on the day of the last interview with Durst that they had incriminating evidence, that, indeed, they devised the final interview to trap Durst and separately miked the toilet, and that they, then, intentionally withheld this evidence, notwithstanding shedding crocodile tears for the victims and their families so that they could make a big splash with the presentation of this proof on prime-time TV.   Here is my prediction for what it is worth:  Jurecki, Smerling, and their sound engineers are going to be in hot-water as criminal prosecution of Durst proceeds and, once Durst hires world-class defense lawyers to study the chain of evidence on the audio tape.  Probably, the issue is moot.  Durst looked frail and very sick in the final interview, images now more than two years old, and my guess is that he will die before standing trial. 

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