“I’ve never had a dismembered headless torso to investigate,” says a Texas police officer in the opening minutes of HBO’s six-part true crime documentary series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. A project seven years in the making, the show is also the beneficiary of good timing, in so far as it’s impossible to watch it without thinking of recent obsessions with true crime tales and atmospherics, like the podcast Serial and last year’s premiere season of True Detective.
Like HBO’s endlessly dissected fictional series, The Jinx starts with a gory, viscerally disgusting crime. A man’s body was torn apart methodically, in Galveston, Texas, and found in pieces in plastic bags floating in the bay. (Shades of Showtime’s Dexter.) There’s a series of Texas police, who go over the crime in excruciating detail and describe how they eventually alighted on a suspect: Robert Durst, the rich scion of a New York real estate family, a man who was on the lam after the disappearance of his wife and the possible shooting of a friend, and was living disguised as a mute woman, Dorothy Cline.
It’s the sort of thing that’s stranger than fiction, even though it inspired its own fictionalized version of events: the 2010 Ryan Gosling/Kirsten Dunst movie, All Good Things, directed by Andrew Jarecki (best known for the explosive 2003 documentary Capturing the Friedmans), presented the known contours of Durst’s life, ending with Gosling in drag in Texas. When Durst saw the movie, he gave Jarecki a call. This contact led to the center of The Jinx: Jarecki got Durst to sit down for an interview.
Episode one sets up the crime in boilerplate form. Talking head after talking head from the Texas police discuss how gross and cruel this crime was, and then they go into detail about how they find their suspect. The reveal at the end — that Durst is it, that he’s out in the world, that Durst got in touch with Jarecki — is like seeing a monster in the flesh.
After the throat-clearing of episode one, episode two is where the show gets into the interview. Durst discusses his life: his mother who committed suicide in front of him, his abusive relationship with his wife, Kathleen. His mien and presentation is disconcertingly off — cold and haughty. It’s hard not to want to judge him, and the disconnect is disquieting between the man and the documentary’s dive into dramatic techniques to make the story thrilling, with recreations and intrusive score.
However, what’s worrying about this show so far is tone: it’s seamy and exploitative to surround the affectless confessions of a bad man with storytelling that delves in gruesome detail into the charges of how people’s lives ended, coincidentally all around this one man. It’s impossible not to wonder whether there’s something explosive to come, whether this fairly already well-known true crime story can become something else — otherwise, why should these crimes be recounted and reworked? So far, I’m not sure whether there’s anything of note in seeing what a man who is very far from human has to say about the crimes that have plagued his life. But then again, maybe The Jinx is the documentary we deserve — the scary flipside of our desire to know why horrible people do unspeakable things.