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‘The Jinx’ Star Robert Durst is Arrested; the HBO Series is a Doc Study of What We Can and Cannot Know

'The Jinx' Star Robert Durst is Arrested; the HBO Series is a Doc Study of What We Can and Cannot Know

HBO’s nonfiction series “The Jinx” concludes this Sunday, March 15, at 8pm. Read TOH! TV critic Matt Brennan’s review, originally published Feb. 4.  

READ the New York Times: Robert Durst is Arrested on Murder Charge

When a human torso and a number of black plastic bags filled with severed limbs washed ashore in Galveston, Texas in the fall of 2001, Det. Gary Jones initiated an investigation. The head of the victim, later identified as Morris Black, was never recovered, but a newspaper found at the scene led the police to the apartment of one Dorothy Ciner — “a real ugly deaf-mute woman” described by her landlord as an ideal tenant, the kind who paid the year’s rent in advance and then more or less disappeared. Inside Ciner’s home at 2213 Avenue K, spartan save for the drop cloths covering the kitchen floor, Jones noticed a collection of “real small cuts” in the linoleum and discovered, upon peeling it back, a bloodstain. “I had no idea of what I was fixin’ to step into,” Jones’ colleague, Det. Cody Cazalas, remembers. “If I had, I’m not so sure I would’ve stepped in so willingly.”

Stranger than fiction, Andrew Jarecki’s extraordinary series “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst” weaves the grisly scene in Galveston into a wide-ranging mystery that scratches again and again at the American fascination with “true crime.” Poised between the desire to know and the limits of knowledge, “The Jinx,” like Jarecki’s masterful first feature, “Capturing the Friedmans” (2003), is an examination of the half-life of facts. Pressed into the service of a narrative by policemen, prosecutors, defendants, journalists, or filmmakers, even hard evidence may suddenly seem to be in the eye of the beholder, and “The Jinx” traces the rough texture of these inconsistencies, contradictions, and conflicting perspectives in remarkable detail. 

To this end, the series marshals the full complement of documentary techniques — including still photographs, archival footage, voiceovers, site visits, and re-enactments — to recreate the “life and deaths” of its subject while maintaining a certain cautious detachment. In effect, “The Jinx” is neither “Serial,” rooted in the conventions of journalism, nor “True Detective,” inhabiting the borderland between realism and supernaturalism, though in style and structure it contains echoes of both. Rather, as Jarecki notes near the end of the first episode, his interest in “monster stories” derives from his understanding that the perpetrator of even the most unspeakable acts once had “hopes [and] dreams.” No one is born a murderer.  

With lizard-like eyes and an occasional ill-timed smirk, Durst, the scion of a New York real estate dynasty whose first wife, Kathie, vanished under suspicious circumstances in 1982, does little in his first public interview to dispel the “diabolical” impression he leaves on his doubters. To Durst, the “jinx” in question is his own life, but by using more than 25 hours of interviews with the enigmatic figure as an entry point into a decade-long reassessment of the evidence, Jarecki and collaborator Marc Smerling suggest that all crime is, in the broadest sense of the term, circumstantial. There are no curses, only contexts; there is no proof, only points of view.

The result, whether you are familiar with Durst’s story from tabloid covers and Jarecki’s own, lightly fictionalized “All Good Things” (2010) or come to the series cold, is an absorbing dissection of an investigation — a case study of how one makes, or fails to make, a case. Indeed, unlike “Serial” and “True Detective,” both of which disappointed some audience members with unsatisfactory conclusions, “The Jinx” establishes the tension between evidence and narrative from the outset. One is always disrupting the other, and Jarecki once again embraces this unstable relationship as his real subject. He is, to our benefit, a chronicler of how the truth lies.

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