By now you have probably heard of—if not seen—The Jinx, HBO’s explosive documentary about real estate scion and alleged three-time murderer Robert Durst. Over the course of two decades, the multi-millionaire was accused of killing both his ex-wife and his best friend. Disguised as a mute woman, Durst fled to Texas, where he eventually shot and dismembered his 71-year-old neighbor. He was never charged for the first two murders and was acquitted for the third on grounds of self-defense. It’s a bizarre story that became astronomically more sensational when The Jinx filmmakers captured Durst making a confession (perhaps) while his microphone was hot: “What the hell did you do?” he said to himself. “Killed them all, of course.”
The Jinx makes some questionable choices—ethically, legally, journalistically—but the documentary is without question a magnetic portrait of a murderer. Durst is simultaneously riveting and repulsive with his dead shark eyes, unnerving ticks and disarmingly blasé confessions of domestic abuse. His sublime creepiness makes The Jinx compulsively watchable, and in that sense, the documentary is not exceptional. Most true crime stories—from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood to the soaringly popular Serial podcast—are driven by the inscrutability of the alleged or convicted murderers. We want to know if they did it, how they did it, why the did it. Too often, the victims remain shadowy figures. They can’t speak for themselves, of course, and they don’t have the mystery and perverse appeal of the people who took their lives. At best, the dead are rendered as murky plot points in the narrative of their own murder; at worst they are fetishized.
Thanks to some unfortunate aesthetic choices, The Jinx veers dangerously close to the latter depiction of the deceased. Deaths, and particularly the deaths of attractive women, become irksomely sexy thanks to a series of low-lit, slo-mo reenactments. The actress who stands in for Kathleen Durst, Robert’s first wife and alleged first victim, is all high heels and blonde hair as she molasses-walks into her country home on the night of her disappearance. In a repeated series of “flashbacks,” the second victim, Susan Berman, crumples to the ground after being shot in the head. Her hair billows out behind her as she falls and a shiny pool of thick, scarlet blood seeps out onto the floor. Worst of all is the depiction of Durst’s mother, who committed suicide by jumping off a roof. In The Jinx’s reenactment, she floats to her death in a flimsy, flowing nightgown. Slick HBO production value aside, it is all so terribly tacky.
But The Jinx redeems itself by devoting a surprising amount of time to the two women who were closest to Robert Durst, and who died under highly suspicious circumstances. (Morris Black, the man whom Durst murdered and dismembered in Galveston, remains oblique; based on the documentary’s testimonials, he lived a crotchety, solitary life). Director Andrew Jarecki conducted extensive interviews with the friends and families of both Kathleen Durst and Susan Berman, to the point that they become tangible, complicated presences in The Jinx.
When it comes to Kathleen Durst, these supplementary interviews are important not only because they contest Durst’s claims of innocence, but also because they paint a very different portrait of what Kathleen was like before she disappeared in 1982. Durst depicts his marriage as a mismatch of personality types: She was sociable and he was not, she was family-oriented and he was not, she wanted children and he, in his own words, “made her” get an abortion. Durst allows that he is “complicit in Kathie’s not being here” only in the sense that had she not married him, she could have settled down with “a normal guy, like from Long Island” and had a “bunch of kids.”
But the people who knew and loved Kathleen suggest that her ambitions were not quite so simple. She was smart (“probably smarter than me,” says her mother), and at the time of her disappearance, Kathleen was studying to become a doctor. She had made plans to get out of her abusive marriage, and told her friends that she was afraid her husband would kill her. Durst himself seems to indicate that the issue with his marriage to Kathleen—and whatever other tragedy may have occurred between them—was not that Kathleen was too small-town-sweet for an eccentric millionaire, but that she wasn’t quite docile enough. “I was the dominant one,” Durst says. “She went along for a little while, and then she got tired of it. She says she wants her independence, she doesn’t want me to be controlling her all the time.”
The Jinx really shines with its portrayal of Susan Berman, the daughter of a mob boss and Robert Durst’s best friend. Law enforcement officials believed that Berman helped Durst cover up his wife’s murder and later, when she fell on hard times, extorted him for money. She was found shot in the head, execution style, shortly after she spoke to Los Angeles police about Kathleen Durst’s disappearance. Berman’s friends describe her as a woman who was fiercely loyal and fiercely in love with power. She kept a framed copy of her father’s mugshot and liked to tell her friends that the millionaire Robert Durst needed her. She was also a mother to her ex-boyfriend’s children, who speak of Berman with great affection.The contradictory facets of Berman’s existence—she might very well have been a mother and an accomplice to murder, a great friend and an opportunistic betrayer—lend her enough intrigue to rival the weirdness of Robert Durst, and that’s a good thing. The Jinx, after all, is not only Durst’s story.