Tuesday, August 11, 2015

"I Killed Them All"

If you’re like me and 60 million other people, you spent most of last fall listening and re-listing to Serial, the podcast from This American Life that examined the 1999 murder of high schooler Hae Min Lee and the subsequent trial and conviction of her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed. The story was riveting, despite being unabashedly reflective of real life police work (an entire episode was devoted to cell phone towers and how they work), eschewing the fancy Hollywood noir for journalistic investigation. And while we’re still waiting for Serial’s second season to come out, apparently sometime this fall, HBO has created a miniseries that may fill the Sarah Koenig-sized hole in your heart while waiting for the next installment. The miniseries, The Jinx, was released this spring and, much in the same vein as Serial, re-examined a long cold murder case with a fresh eye to the potential killer.

Just a guy sitting in a dark movie theatre alone. Nope, nothing creepy here.

The Jinx focuses on Robert Durst, the son of an extremely successful and powerful Manhattan real estate developer, Durst was in line to inherit the empire his family built, but the head position ultimately went to his brother instead.  In 1982, Durst’s wife Kathie vanished after a weekend at the couple’s home in Connecticut. She has not been seen or heard from since and is still missing to this day. Durst was a suspect in her murder and The Jinx follows Durst through the investigation into her death. But just when you assume this is a simple cut-and-dried case of spousal murder, that’s when the other bodies start to appear.

The Jinx benefits from the cooperation of Durst himself. He speaks freely about his past, the investigations he’s been at the core of, his thoughts and opinions of his family and Kathie’s friends. Durst became interested in the project after seeing the 2010 movie All Good Things, a fictitious account of Kathie’s murder starring Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst. Impressed by the lack of sensationalism in the movie, Durst approached that film’s director to see if he was interested in “finding the real story.” The result is the six episode miniseries you see here.

Hollywood turned its unflinching eye on reality and bravely cast this Robert Durst lookalike as the lead. 

So what is “the real story”? The facts, as they say, are these: Sometime over the weekend of January 31, 1982, Kathie Durst went missing around Newtown, Connecticut.  Robert Durst told police that they were in Connecticut at their weekend home and that he had put Kathie on a train back to New York City the night of the 31st because she had to be back to attend classes she was taking the next day.  Robert said he called their Manhattan apartment and talked to her that evening to verify she made it home before returning to the city himself a few days later.

Kathie never showed up for her classes the next morning, however staff at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine where she was a student told police that she called them that morning to say that she was ill and wouldn’t be in class today.  And that’s when Kathie disappears off the face of the earth. Robert reports her missing on February 6, almost a full week after he says he saw her the last time. He claims the delay is due to her busy schedule as a final year medical student, saying that he would often go several days without seeing her.

I'd say there's some eerie foreshadowing in their wedding picture, but to be honest that's pretty much how all the early 80s looked.

Worth noting that is that in the weeks prior to her disappearance, Kathie told friends that Robert beat her and even sought medical attention for wounds. She claims that he forced her to have an abortion and that she considered divorce but felt hamstrung by a prenuptial agreement. The night of January 31st, Kathie had been a friend’s party when she left suddenly after receiving an angry phone call from Robert. Kathie reportedly told her friend, “If something happens to me, check it out. I’m afraid of what Bobby will do.”

Kathie’s case grows cold for lack of evidence. Robert’s claims are dubious; he says he called Kathie from a payphone, but no payphone was close to their home; A doorman at their Manhattan apartment recalled seeing Kathie arrive home but admits that he only saw her from the back and it could have been someone else. In the end, there is no body so Kathie is officially a missing person. Durst recedes from attention, selling his home (and many of Kathie’s possessions) and fading from view.

It’s not until a seemingly unrelated murder in Los Angeles happens on Christmas Eve, 2000, a full 18 years later, that the case begins to find life again. Susan Berman, daughter of a mobster and longtime friend of none other than Robert Durst, is found murdered execution-style in her apartment.  And it doesn’t end there. In September of 2001, a family fishing in Galveston, Texas, finds a grotesquely dismembered torso floating off the beach surrounded by the severed body parts. Police are able to identify the body as that of an elderly man named Morris Black. Take one guess as to who happens to be living in the apartment above him. Robert Durst? Actually, a mute woman named Dorothy Ciner, someone Robert went to high school with. Confused? It only gets crazier.

The Jinx dives deeply into this story, one that spans multiple decades and the length of the United States. Durst himself comes off as unsettling at best. His voice is odd, his facial tics like something that an actor would create in order to appear mentally unbalanced. Durst has a way with words that  is unpolished and strangely refreshing, particularly for someone who has been through so much media and legal questioning. When asked, for example, why he told police that he had talked to Kathie when she arrived back in New York the night she was last seen given that there was no other evidence of her ever even making it on the train back to the city, he says, “I was hoping that would just make everything go away.” An odd sentiment for a man whose wife has just gone missing.

Definitely not a murderer. Can't even see how you could go there.

For all it traffics in the hugeness of the story, The Jinx strives to approach Durst with objectivity as well. It explores his childhood, humanizing him without apologizing for him. Durst tells a story about being woken in the middle of the night when he was seven years old by his father and brought to a window in their mansion. Durst's father told him to look to the roof where he saw his mother in her nightgown standing by herself. Durst says his father made him watch as his mother fell or was pushed to her death. The series establishes the myriad ways in which Robert was made to understand himself as not like his other brothers, the ones who had earned their father’s favor. To say that the Durst family dynamics were complicated is, obviously, an understatement.

In the end, The Jinx makes its biggest splash when it uncovers evidence not previously found in the original police investigations. The day before the final episode aired in March on HBO, police made a high-profile arrest based largely on evidence that the filmmakers uncovered. The filmmakers made clear after the fact that they turned over all evidence to the police upon finding it. The arrest was certainly well-timed from a ratings perspective, but unrelated to the production schedule of the show.

In that sense, The Jinx manages to do what Serial did not – figure out what really happened. And while that’s no detriment to Serial’s production, it does give The Jinx the kind of closure that you may find yourself craving after all this true crime hullabaloo. The Jinx manages to come off as a more interesting 20/20.  It doesn’t sex up the effects or take any questionable licenses with the topic, but it is engaging, fascinating storytelling. It’s the perfect thing to take up your time until the world’s most favorite podcast comes back. Get on it, Koenig! 

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