This week I finally caught the finale of The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. If you haven't seen it yet, then avoid the SPOILERS in this post ahead and move on.
The ending, as many have noted, was stunning, like some Michael Haneke movie come to life. Rarely has a still shot of an empty room been so fraught with horror. Just before then, when confronted with handwriting evidence that seemed to implicate him irrefutably, Durst started burping loudly, as if his subconscious was about to regurgitate the truth on camera. And then it did? Durst muttering “Killed them all, of course.” into a hot mic while he was in the bathroom alone couldn't be any more of a Shakespearean soliloquy if it came from the pen of the Bard himself.
The hot mic's the thing, wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.
Like some, however, I take issue with some of Jarecki's choices. The first is his use of reenactments. I yearn for more just talking heads when it comes to documentary style, so I can understand the temptation of reenactments. Rather than just having someone talk about something that happened, you can hand the viewer a visual.
In doing so, though, you rob the viewer of their imagination, and you unconsciously bias them in all sorts of ways. One person might claim something happened. By actually enacting that moment on screen, that testimony gains corporeal form and feels more real. Or, if the reenactment is lousy, it seems less credible. Either way, the visuals overpower the spoken word, even as one is just one filmmaker's fancy.
Richard Brody writes:
Reënactments aren’t what-ifs, they’re as-ifs, replete with approximations and suppositions that definitively detach the image from the event, the vision from the experience. One of Jarecki’s reënactments leaves me strangely obsessed with an insignificant detail that takes on an outsized significance in revealing the inadequacy of his method for the emotional essence of the story. In the second episode, Kathie Durst’s friend Gilberte Najamy tells Jarecki that, before her disappearance, Kathie Durst went to a party at her house, where she told Najamy that she was afraid of Robert Durst, and insisted that, if anything happened to her, Najamy should “check it out.” To signify that there had indeed been a party at Najamy’s house, Jarecki offers a tracking shot of a table laden with platters of food—including a pasta salad with a single pitted black olive sticking up from it. I’m obsessed with that olive. Did Najamy describe to Jarecki the dishes that she served? Did she describe the table itself, the room? Did Jarecki film this scene where Najamy lived at the time, or where she lives now? Or did Jarecki assume that Najamy, or someone like Najamy (whatever he’d mean by that), would at the time have served that kind of pasta salad at a party that might look like that? Najamy’s account is powerful; Jarecki’s image is generic. Najamy is specific, concrete, and detailed. She delivers a crucial piece of her life, whole, to Jarecki—who treats it like a hack’s screenplay and makes a facile illustration of it.
Beyond the awe-inspiring (and sometimes awful) recollections of people involved in the past events that are at the center of the drama, Jarecki brings into play actual objects that bear a physical connection to them—which is why the objects of dubious provenance (such as a box of police records relating to Kathie Durst’s disappearance, sealed with red “evidence” tape) are such offenses to the dignity of the film’s subjects. Jarecki shows this box being taken from a shelf; he puts the camera inside the shelf and shows the box being put back there; he shows the box being unsealed and then sealed again. It’s impossible to know whether this is the actual evidence box for the case; whether the handwriting on the box is actually that of a police clerk from the time; whether the files pulled from it were handled by the actual investigators who worked on the case; whether the room where it’s stored is the actual file room or a studio mockup.
Jarecki doesn't just shoot conventional re-enactments, either. They are highly stylized. In my memory's eye, two shots from the series I can't shake (besides the last one of the series) are one of some actress playing Durst's mother committing suicide and the other of some actress playing Susan Berman toppling after being shot in the head. Both are images of female bodies falling, and both are played in slow motion, over and over, like something fetishistic shot from 300.
What's a shame is the series doesn't need them. Some of the reenactments are less stylized, but that just makes them harder to distinguish from live shots from the present. I don't mind a mixture of fiction and non-fiction in documentaries, but some spirit of fair play seems called for, especially when it's documentary as investigative journalism.
Many probably find all of this to be nitpicking and may not have had any problems with the series as filmed. It may be easier to understand if we examine the question using a series that many grouped with The Jinx, the podcast Serial. Imagine in Serial if, after Sarah heard testimony from a witness like Jay about seeing Hae's body in the trunk of the car at Best Buy, she put together an audio recreation of those events. If Sarah had hired some voice actors to play Adnan and Jay, recreating the conversation as Jay recalled it, layering in sound effects like a trunk popping open. Regardless of whether listeners felt Adnan was guilty, many would be uncomfortable with the technique.
The last episode steers clear of reenactments, but the cumulative effect of the one's from the first five episodes was such that I wasn't sure whether to buy the shots of Jarecki himself in the finale, speaking about how he feared for his life (this piece at Buzzfeed goes into a more in-depth stylistic breakdown of the narrative manipulation at work). Jarecki clearly doesn't shy from drama, but the use of all these tricks leads one to discount everything on screen, the way one applies a base level of skepticism to stories from a proven drama queen.
Another issue with the series is Jarecki's manipulation of the timeline. In the last episode, it seems as if Robert Durst agrees to sit with Jarecki for another interview (the now infamous one which concludes the series) only after police arrest Durst outside his brother's home. I thought for sure that was the sequence of events because it's shown in that order, and the series includes audio from a phone call from Durst to Jarecki asking for the director's help.
But when Jarecki was asked about whether he had manipulated this timeline in the NYTimes, he suddenly seemed as uncomfortable as Durst was in the last interview of The Jinx.
When did you discover the piece of audio from the bathroom, in which Mr. Durst seemed to confess?
Jarecki: That was at the tail end of a piece of an interview. I don’t know if you’ve ever edited anything — things get loaded into the editing machine but not everything gets loaded. The sound recorder isn’t listening after a guy gets up and says he wants a sandwich. It often doesn’t get marked and get loaded. That didn’t get loaded for quite a while. We hired some new assistants and they were going through some old material. That was quite a bit later. Let me look at my list. It was June 12, 2014.
So it was more than two years later. From watching the episode, it seemed as if the 2013 arrest of Robert Durst for violating the order of protection by walking on his brother Douglas’s brownstone steps happened after the second interview.
Jarecki (to Smerling): I’m hearing a lot of noise. And if we’re going to talk about the timeline, we should actually sit in front of the timeline. So that’s my suggestion, if that’s the subject you want to talk about.
I’m just trying to clarify if the arrest for being on Douglas Durst’s property happened after the second interview.
Jarecki: Yeah, I think I’ve got to get back to you with a proper response on that.
Someone check the tails of that audio recording of Jarecki's interview, maybe his mic was still hot?
Maybe, as some have put it, we're a bunch of whiny brats all that matters is we caught that murderer and got six hours of lurid, compelling TV to boot. Judging by what critical reception I've seen, The Jinx was a resounding success, and so, perhaps as the underrated movie Nightcrawler depicted, we'll happily go along with a coming wave of vigilante journalism.
Perhaps the filming of The Jinx can be the subject of Serial, Season 2. Vigilante journalism recursion, the snake eating its own tail. Who am I kidding, I wouldn't be able to look away.