If the finale of HBO’s “The Jinx” left you with indigestion, you’re not alone. [SPOILERS BELOW.] Director Andrew Jarecki’s compelling docuseries, which I reviewed for TOH! last month, culminated in 35 minutes of jangled nerves and upset stomachs that tapped into the same zeitgeist as blockbuster podcast “Serial” and HBO’s fictional miniseries “True Detective.” (As Variety reports, the finale of “The Jinx” attracted more than 1 million same-day viewers, the largest audience in its six-episode run.) In the cold light of day, however, the timing of Jarecki’s fateful “second interview” with Robert Durst, son of a New York real estate mogul and suspect in three now-notorious cases, has come under intense scrutiny. At once baring the bones of nonfiction filmmaking and eliding the chronological details of the narrative’s construction, “The Jinx” has emerged as a cultural phenomenon by exposing the slippery nature of “true crime.”
During the course of filming, Jarecki, collaborator Marc Smerling, and their team came into possession of damning evidence against Durst with regard to the 2000 slaying of Susan Berman in Los Angeles. Down to the misspelling of the “Beverly” in Beverly Hills, a 1999 letter Durst sent to Berman, his friend and spokesperson, bore uncanny similarities to what Jarecki calls “the cadaver note”—an anonymous tip Berman’s killer mailed to the Beverly Hills police reporting the location of her corpse. Late Monday, the Associated Press reported, Los Angeles prosecutors charged Robert Durst with first-degree murder, which carries the possibility of the death penalty.
The finale, building toward Durst and Jarecki’s fateful confrontation with tense, real-time rhythms and even the odd shock of black humor—”Are you fucking kidding me?!” a voice calls out from behind the camera, when Jarecki says he finds Durst to be “generally truthful”—retains an obsessive focus on the two documents. The filmmakers consult a handwriting expert, who describes the match as “bang on”; show copies of the writing samples to Durst’s attorney, Chip Lewis, and Westchester County, New York District Attorney Jeanine Pirro; and try, at first unsuccessfully, to schedule a second interview with Durst. At first glance, the key to the episode is its close attention to the mechanics of this last leg in the investigation, peppered with glimpses of the filmmakers meeting, doubting, debating, strategizing. “The Jinx,” as I wrote in my initial review, has appeared throughout its run to be as attuned to the messy construction of true-life narratives as it is to the desire for a satisfying conclusion.
With each new detail about the making of “The Jinx,” in particular its shocking conclusion, this reading becomes less tenable. During last night’s episode, The New Yorker’s Silvia Killingsworth pointed out on Twitter that the filmmakers may have left the specifics of timing unmentioned in the service of narrative suspense—Durst’s arrest
for violating a restraining order set by his estranged brother, which, as Jarecki says in the episode, provides the “leverage” to press for the second interview, occurred
in August 2013.
Now, according to Buzzfeed’s Kate Aurthur, New York Times reporter Charles Bagli, who has covered Durst extensively and appears in “The Jinx,” says that the second interview in fact took place in 2012. “That would mean,” Aurthur writes, ‘The Jinx”s timeline is messed with.” Though Jarecki told “CBS This Morning” that the police have been in possession of audio recordings and other materials gathered in the course of production for “many months,” an evasive interview with the New York Times’ Bruce Fretts and a statement released by a representative for Jarecki and Smerling have only stoked the controversy. (Deadline and The Daily Beast have further details on the muddled timeline and the filmmakers’ response.) The filmmakers’ statement reads:
“Given that we are likely to be called as witnesses in any case law enforcement may decide to bring against Robert Durst, it is not appropriate for us to comment further on these pending matters. We can confirm that evidence (including the envelope and the washroom recording) was turned over to authorities months ago.”
The series has never been unimpeachable, of course. In particular, the highly stylized title sequence, reminiscent of “True
Detective,” always seemed salaciously ill-suited to the documentary project. The revelations that have followed the finale, however, raise questions about the truth content of “The Jinx” that run deeper than the usual haggling over narrative license—which is, after all, an element of even the most the most unassailable reporting, from choosing what stories to tell and what questions to ask to
sculpting an intelligible final product from a nest of stray facts. At this point, it is clear that Jarecki’s role in capturing the stunning audio that concluded “The Jinx” will rightly be submitted to further reporting and criticism.
From the outset, “The Jinx” made clear that its central concern was not only Durst’s guilt or innocence, but also the ways in which even “hard” evidence can be turned to multiple, mutually exclusive ends, a potent reminder that our judicial system asks jurors to choose between two competing narratives, rather than evaluate “proof.” In a sense, then, Aurthur’s discomfiting notion that “The Jinx” was “messed with” further underlines the series’ engagement with the “true” in “true crime.” Long before we saw Durst’s burping, blinking response to the similarities between his letter to Berman and “the cadaver note,” long before he was arrested in New Orleans on murder charges on the eve of the finale, “The Jinx” tapped into the culture’s renewed fascination with the genre by foregrounding, perhaps misleadingly, the uncertain elements of Durst’s tale. (As the Los Angeles Times reports, the Los Angeles Police Department denies any connection between the airing of the finale and the timing of Durst’s arrest.)
Both “Serial” and “The Jinx” thus transformed a type of storytelling familiar from pulpier venues (cheap paperbacks, “Dateline,” and “48 Hours,” to name but three) into ostensibly “highbrow” obsessions by nodding at the work of constructing a taut narrative from the unstable truths the real world tends to offer. That “Serial,” told in the vernacular of journalism, disappointed listeners with its open-ended conclusion, while “The Jinx,” which increasingly seems to fall short of the whole truth, set the Internet alight with its extraordinary finale, begins to suggest the central dilemma of the nonfiction project: the facts are often at war with the narrative impulse.
Though many observers have already begun to deconstruct the “confession” captured by Durst’s hot mic, as he retreated to the bathroom following the second interview, the man suspected of three gruesome crimes has eluded justice before—not with disguises and daring escapes, but by using the nature of our courts to his advantage. For the families and friends of the deceased, the finale remains in the future. What we’re left with is not the desired ending, but rather a six-part testament to the power of “true crime,” which resides in its troubling mash-up of the conventions of fiction with the veneer of the real.
“There it is,” Durst says, finally. “You’re caught. You’re right, of course. But, you can’t imagine. Arrest him. I don’t know what’s in the house. Oh, I want this. What a disaster. He was right. I was wrong. And the burping. I’m having difficulty with the question. What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
These words, pockmarked with reasonable doubt, may not result in a conviction, if they’re even ruled admissible in a court of law. Though it made a case of sorts, “The Jinx” was not a trial. It was, rather, television that identified, and possibly abused, a craving for the unexpected—for the “true” in “true crime”—in an age of canned answers, spoiler alerts, and predictable endings. The problem with “The Jinx” is that it played on our deep-seated desire for the electric flicker of live viewing, even though it was, as we knew all along, pre-recorded, edited tape.