HBO’s new series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst has been called everything from a documentary (which it is) to a crime drama (which it can be) to a miniseries (which, technically, it is). Don’t fault HBO for the lack of a true identification, though. The story of Robert Durst and the deaths that seem to follow him is as fascinating as any fictionalized account on television right now.
Marketed as a panacea to those obsessed with NPR’s phenomenally popular podcast Serial, The Jinx actually has more in common – at least from the pilot anyway – with HBO’s other big crime drama, True Detective. Granted, there are natural differences between documentaries and works of fiction, but both pieces share strong similarities: a flashy, impressionistic opening sequence; a Southern locale filled with colorful law enforcement in Galveston, Texas (True Detective writer Nic Pizzolatto’s debut novel was set in and titled Galveston); and a morbid fascination with the details of a crime scene.
In fact, the series’ opening sequence offers a detective who nonchalantly describes pulling the titular body – a torso, really – out of Galveston Bay by reaching in through the throat and grabbing the breastbone. He admits that it’s the only time in his life where he could honest say he’d reached down somebody’s throat. This and the subsequent crime scene photos of severed body parts are a gruesome, attention-grabbing way to begin the series.
It’s not long before the murder victim’s trail leads back to Robert Durst, a wealthy eccentric New York real estate heir, who had apparently been living in a run-down apartment as “Dorothy Ciner.” Thus begins a dizzying account of the (alleged?) true crime exploits of Durst who proves, over the course of the first hour, to be a fascinating documentary subject.
After his first arrest, Durst asks the incarcerating officer what he should do next with a bail set at $250,000.
“Do you have $250,000,” asked the officer, unaware of Durst’s wealthy background.
“Well, not on me,” Durst replies. The money is a mere phone call away it turns out.
After failing to appear for his first court appearance, Durst is later caught after stealing a hoagie from a grocery in Pennsylvania. He had $500 in his pocket, and over $37,000 in the trunk of his car. Clearly, the man could afford the price of a hoagie. So why did he do it?
I’m not sure director Andrew Jarecki (Capturing the Friedmans) really has the answer to this or the many questions raised about Robert Durst. To maintain focus on the series, I have tried to remain ignorant of the case, preferring for Jarecki to provide the facts over the course of the series. After all, Jarecki has a passion for the project after directing All Good Things, a feature film based on Durst’s life and the unsolved disappearance of his first wife that starred Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst.
After all that, Durst caught the film and contacted Jarecki for a personal interview, a surprising turn of events for a man that initially appears to be somewhat enjoying his own celebrity. Unfortunately, the first episode cuts just as the interview begins. The only impressions we’d made of Durst up until this point are through previously recorded footage and prison recordings made of phone calls with his alarmingly supportive wife.
Similar to NPR’s Serial, there is a strong urge to uncover the facts behind the crime. As a crime drama, The Jinx is immediately compelling as, typically, nothing is more bizarre that the truth. I suspect enjoyment of the series hinges on how much you know about the original crime. As a documentary, the jury is still out. The series’ ultimate success hinges on how deeply Jarecki is able to dive into Durst’s psyche.
If Jarecki is able to provide a well-rounded portrait of the man, then The Jinx could be the stuff of legends.