Robert Durst is one of the more sympathetic alleged serial killers I've seen interviewed on television. He's not folksily unhinged, like Charles Manson, or flatly terrifying, like Jeffrey Dahmer. He seems like any other New York eccentric. He carries a backpack, wears little sneakers and toddles around New York City, Starbucks Americano in hand. He speaks in a nasal drawl, his voice steady, never rising or falling above a certain pitch (except for some stray whispers).
We can thank Durst's documentarian, the filmmaker Andrew Jarecki, for this portrayal. Jarecki said he was giving Durst "tremendous benefit of the doubt" in making The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, the HBO documentary whose final episode premiered on Sunday night. Jarecki might be the world's foremost expert on Durst, a New York real estate heir suspected of killing his first wife and two of his best friends. In 2010, Jarecki directed All Good Things, a fictional movie based on Durst's life starring Ryan Gosling as Durst and Kirsten Dunst as his wife. After seeing the movie, Durst phoned Jarecki and asked him if would be interested in interviewing him. Jarecki said yes.
The power dynamic between subject and journalist (for all intents and purposes, Jarecki is a journalist here) is the subject of fertile debate for the modern media industry. By media law, all such discussion must occur in the shadow of The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm's evisceration of Joe McGinniss for his work in writing about the Jeffrey MacDonald case.
MacDonald, a former Green Beret accused of murdering his wife and two young daughters in 1970, wrote to McGinniss, a well-regarded journalist, inviting him to cover his case and pending trial, in the hopes of documenting his innocence. A contract was signed; McGinniss embedded with MacDonald's defense team and, after four years, produced the 900-page bestseller Fatal Vision, which thoroughly and forensically dismantled MacDonald's credibility.
The two men, Malcolm writes in her own book, functioned under the guise of friendship—perhaps even "best" friendship. The story that McGinniss produced as a result of that relationship has been called an "unserious" work of journalism and—in Malcolm's notorious and immortal formulation, "morally indefensible." The New Yorker's Rebecca Mead would go back to Malcolm for the kicker of her own online piece this week, scolding audiences for having partaken in The Jinx.
This received wisdom neatly replaces the story of MacDonald and his brutally murdered family with the story of McGinniss' seeming betrayal of a source's trust. What is that original story?MacDonald, painted by his defense team as a dashing, All-American Princeton-trained doctor, claimed that his wife and two young daughters had been stabbed with an ice pick by four itinerant hippies who scrawled on his headboard in blood "kill the pigs." MacDonald, who was in their home in Ft. Bragg, North Carolina during the attack, escaped with minor wounds.
McGinniss, charmed by Jeffrey MacDonald, said that he had believed him innocent at first. By the end of the trial, when MacDonald was convicted of murder, McGinniss believed him guilty. He decided to write his book as such, but not tell MacDonald. Fatal Vision captures that transformation through a slow burn of revelatory evidence: It is not until late in the book that the reader learns MacDonald was not sleeping and using amphetamine-laced diet pills at the time of his family's death, and that shortly afterward he had a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old. (His libido is well-documented throughout.)
Even as he moved toward that conclusion, McGinniss let MacDonald keep confiding in him, exploiting the access of a source who believed that the reporter believed his story. In Malcolm's eyes, this was an act of unscrupulous betrayal. But still, McGinniss wrote a great book: heavily reported, well-researched, expertly detached. So what if he screwed over a murderer?
In The Jinx, it was clear that Andrew Jarecki liked Robert Durst. The filmmaker said as much, in episode six. He and his subject set out to use each other for mutual benefit. Like MacDonald, Durst reached out to his interviewer. Durst would get to tell his side of the story, maybe clear his name, and Jarecki would get to make an interesting movie that would be discussed on Twitter and might be nominated for an award or two.
Early on in The Jinx, Jarecki flat-out asked Durst the pros and cons of agreeing to an interview with him: "The downside of giving an interview is that the interviewer will take what I've said to make me look as bad as possible," Durst said. "The upside is that there will be something out there from me... I will be able to tell [the story] my way."
Through most of the series, Jarecki could barely question his subject. His interview questions, and follow-up questions, were weak, to the point that Durst was almost mocking him in his replies. In the third episode, Jarecki and Durst discussed his "disguise" after he was caught stealing a chicken-salad sandwich from a Wegman's in Pennsylvania. Jarecki: "Why were you bald?" Durst: "I was on the lam!" Jarecki: "...and you shaved your eyebrows... that was intentional?" Durst: "Yeah! How do you accidentally shave your eyebrows?"
Jarecki has said that he wasn't convinced of Durst's guilt during the filming of The Jinx (though he has since changed his mind). The first four episodes of the series are of little consequence; besides the interview portions with Durst, the other segments lacked objective. But it is in the fifth episode that the film lost its footing, switching its focus from Durst to the documentary crew, a much less deserving subject.
Suddenly the audience is taken from a riveting story to journalistic amateur hour: How should Jarecki question Durst? The inclusion of the film crew's excited undulations in the final cut of this project is bizarre. The cynicism of Jarecki's team—suddenly on the cusp of a breaking a story, instead of filming a high-production-value profile of an infamous alleged murderer—shined forth, and the importance of their film over human lives took center stage. Jarecki, on the possibility of Durst confessing to the crimes when presented with their newfound evidence: "Now instead of going through 800 levels of the LAPD we have Bob reacting really clean to this huge piece of evidence." And of course, if not for the fluke discovery of the bathroom confession, the filmmakers would have still had nothing, except for the envelope that Durst denied writing.
The pivot toward transparency could be attributed to the post-Malcolm obsession with journalistic process—transparency as restitution for committing the "morally indefensible" act of journalism. But as we all know, and as my colleague Rich Juzwiak has drawn out, this is also where the timeline of The Jinx gets unduly shady, and Jarecki has been less than forthcoming about the order in which events surrounding the admission of evidence to the LAPD and Durst's arrest occurred, as well as in the order in which events occurred in his documentary—scenes that could be timestamped are not, events that seem to be happening in a linear fashion are not.
Did Jarecki's team obstruct justice to make a better film? In episode six, Jarecki asked his colleagues, "How do we make sure we accomplish our goals?" He answered himself: "Number one, get justice, such as we can get, so we don't want to interfere with anything the police can do." This was a new goal: As he explained to the Times, he went into the Durst interview without a clear objective: "We didn't go into it with any kind of overarching goal," he said. "But we just couldn't predict going in that was going to be the goal of the thing. It went from being more of a movie to being a bit more of a mission when we started to realize how open Bob was being."
It's unsurprising, if disingenuous, to see justice suddenly emphasized as a goal. Jarecki was performing for cameras he knew were running, pleading before the judges, all part of a non-fiction narrative he had complete control over: how he is ultimately perceived. His sin, in the end, is not in deceiving of his source, but even worse: his audience.
Still, Jarecki got the big interview, perhaps the biggest of his career, and then an even larger piece of evidence, and then out of nowhere, a bombshell confession that led him to seemingly solve two decades-long unsolved murders. Jarecki became an actor in his own story. It made for exciting, if strange, television. The plaudits are raining down: he's a genius. But his focus on process only extends so far. Asked by the Times when Durst's apparent confession was caught on tape, Jarecki said: "I think I've got to get back to you with a proper response on that."
What was, exactly, Jarecki's mission? Justice? Closure? Vigilante journalism? Claim to any of those rings false. He should just say it: He wanted to make a really good, not-entirely truthful documentary about a person he's been obsessed with for almost a decade. Did he screw Durst over? Not really. Does he owe Durst everything? Probably. Is The Jinx a work of journalism? Nah.
Things weren't as complicated with Joe McGinniss and Jeffrey MacDonald—both men used each other, and McGinniss came out on top (although MacDonald did sue McGinniss for breach of contract after the book's publication, the trial ended in a mistrial. McGinniss's insurance company settled with MacDonald and the money he was awarded went to the families of his victims). With Durst and Jarecki, it gets quite murky. It's interesting to watch The Jinx not as a true crime caper but as a battle of wills. Jarecki might have had directorial control, but one gets the feeling Durst enjoyed playing him.
[Image via AP]