Review: HBO’s ‘The Jinx’ is a top notch true-crime drama

02.07.15 3 years ago


Perhaps a good way into reviewing Andrew Jarecki's HBO docu-mystery “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst” is through its title.

Unless there's a more direct articulation later on, the title comes from a quote in the second episode. 

New York real estate heir Robert Durst is musing on why he didn't want to have kids with his first wife Kathleen.

“Somehow I thought I might be a jinx,” Durst tells Jarecki.

Durst has spent three decades linked to Kathleen's disappearance, as well as several other murders, including a colorful 2001 case in Galveston, Texas that begins “The Jinx.”

A jinx, indeed.

This brings me to Serial, the podcast that's likely to be mentioned in every single review of “The Jinx.”

In the final Serial episode — Spoiler alert, but not really — Sarah Koenig's colleague Dana Chivvis raises the specter that in order to accept the innocence of Adnan Sayid, you have to be willing to accept that Adnan has been the victim of an unimaginable string of bad luck. I'm not going to get into cell towers and The Nisha Call or any of the specifics, but Dana's point is that the best way to excuse these sticky pieces of anti-Adnan evidence is to just say that the universe was pretty much conspiring against the appearance of Adnan's innocence. 

When it comes to hypothetical innocence, the difference between being a jinx and having bad luck is at the center of the difference between Serial and “The Jinx,” both tremendous pieces of ongoing true crime investigation.

Bad luck speaks to victimization. It speaks to wrong place/wrong time circumstance. It allows for pity and mercy and advocacy. Oh and Adnan Sayid has been in jail for 15 years.

Being a jinx? That's ominous. That's inviting the forces of darkness, even if you don't have the ability to steer them yourself, or at the very least acknowledging their inevitability. It may not be the active imparting of harm, but as Robert Durst presents it, it's at least the passive enabling of harm. Oh and Robert Durst is a free man.

Many listeners downloaded Serial and followed along looking for hints at Adnan's innocence.

Many viewers are going to watch “The Jinx” for either evidence of Durst's guilt or to marvel at the way a man who seems to be above and outside of the reaches of the law situates himself around a series of gnarly crimes. 

In the confident hands of “Capturing the Friedmans” director-producer Jarecki and his regular DP/producer Marc Smerling, “The Jinx” is an utterly compelling watch. Through the two episodes I've seen, it's chilling, emotional and occasionally morbidly funny and moves at a thrilling pace.

Without knowing how the full six-episode series will arc, I can only say that “The Jinx” is positioned to emerge as the best new show of the year thus far and that includes everything that I've seen from  the next few months  as well. 

While Serial seemed to be arcing on-the-fly, “The Jinx” has a confident structure that builds several mysteries into each of the first two episodes, starting with the Galveston murder of Morris Black, whose body was found floating in the bay as only a headless torso. 

Jarecki and Smerling (I'm going to attribute everything to Jarecki, probably, but that's at least partially short-hand) use the Galveston case to work their way into Durst's story, a wacky installment that involves cross-dressing, shoplifting and several layers of identity theft, in addition to good ol' fashioned murder. From the ADA to the investigating detectives, many of the key people in the case follow the evidence as it leads to the man whose father and now brother own some of the most valuable real estate in Manhattan.

It's a novelistic introduction, because the entire first episode of “The Jinx” is nearly finished before you get to the actual hook of the entire series. Jarecki (and Smerling) made a 2010 film that was loosely about the disappearance of Robert Durst's first wife. It was called “All Good Things” and chances are good you didn't see it, despite Ryan Gosling”s fairly generous depiction of Durst. In the aftermath of the film”s release, which was delayed several times ultimately earning less than $700,000 in its domestic run, Durst contacted Jarecki and expressed his willingness to sit down to discuss the real events that inspired the movie.

“I would tend to cooperate with you,” says Durst, who will continue to be marked by this sort of open evasiveness. 

This is what “The Jinx” actually is about;t's a set-up for a Frost/Nixon-style (or Lecter-Starling-style, perhaps) conversation between Jarecki and Durst, featuring the two men as on-camera sparring partners. The start of the second episode is, in fact, all about the presentational aspects behind the scenes of their sit-down, as the documentary asks you to do nothing so much as try to scratch the surface of what is going on inside Robert Durst's head. Certainly through the second episode, I don't have a clue. Durst is brilliant and cagey, but he's also chillingly forthcoming in certain moments. “Chilling” is the operative word, because Durst is a cool customer, gifted by nature with eyes that are nearly the color of pitch, black holes into which all empathy was sucked decades ago. He  is a great character, richly motivated by all manner of personal trauma, but completely unreadable. You may immediately find yourself hating or fearing Durst, but you won't be able to look away.

At least in the early-going, Jarecki is playing academic observer, but we'll see if he gets more aggressive in future episodes. It's entirely possible that Jarecki saw his role as documentarian as being distinctly different from that of a reporter and it's also possible that Durst agreed to talk to Jarecki sensing a shared upper-crust East Coast reserve. We'll see which of those assumptions are on the verge of being overturned.

Viewers worried that “The Jinx” may be excessively sympathetic to Durst needn't. “The Jinx” operates as either a Trojan Horse or a Russian Nesting Doll of storytelling, depending on your perspective. Just as the first episode uses Galveston as a vehicle through which to introduce Durst as an interview subject, the second episode uses Durst's recollections as a vehicle to introduce Kathleen's mother, brother and a slew of friends. A common refrain in criticisms of Sarah Koenig's work on Serial was that Hae Min Lee's was insufficiently represented, that the unquestionable victim got subsumed in Adnan's ambiguous victimhood. At least in the early going, “The Jinx” honors the memory of Kathleen McCormack and, at least in the early going, Robert Durst isn't making any claims to victimhood. And why should he? He's a rich, free man and he clearly doesn't give a [insert your preferred term of callus disregard].

The great thing about “The Jinx” is that each of these nesting narratives is completely fascinating and Jarecki, Smerling and editor Zac Stuart-Pontier (also a co-producer and, like Smerling, sure to have his credit somewhat undersold) approach the layered fabulation with the confidence of people who have put seven years of work into this and know how they want every beat to play out. From the evocative and haunting opening credits set to The Eels' “Fresh Blood” to the tight cutting between talking heads and news footage and Smerling's well-shot reenactments, everything in “The Jinx” points to a gripping yarn well told. 

“The Jinx” is effectively taking the schedule spot that “True Detective” and hopefully the absence of Matthew McConaughey and lack of oblique references to Carcosa and The Yellow King won't scare off viewers who enjoy a good crime drama. I'm always hesitant to give a full “A” grade to opening installments of a close-ended TV shows, because the landing is so essential to any story of this type. “Fargo” would have gotten an “A-” grade for the first four episodes we got before premiere, for example, but I'd give the whole season an “A.” “The Jinx” is probably as close as I'd come to giving a partial series a full “A,” but let's leave it with an “A-” and the promise that I can't wait to watch these last four episodes.

“The Jinx” premieres on Sunday, February 8 at 8 p.m. on HBO.

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