Review: Robert Durst documentary elevates True Crime genre

Documentary was made on request of alleged serial killer Robert Durst who wanted to tell his side of the story

When the documentary mini-series about alleged serial killer Robert Durst began airing in the United States last month, it would have been a spoiler to reveal the climax of the finale: Durst, forgetting his microphone is still on after an interview, appears to admit that he had, indeed, "killed them all".

Just before the final episode aired on March 15, the 71-year-old - the prime suspect in one of the most sensational ongoing murder cases in the United States - was re-arrested for one of the murders he had been cleared of.

Whether you know this or the rest of his story - the scion of a rich New York family had been suspected of dark deeds since the disappearance of his wife Kathie in 1982, and was subsequently accused of two other homicides - the docu-series The Jinx: The Life And Deaths Of Robert Durst will prove just as captivating.

It features all the tropes of the "true crime" format, but takes it to the next level with an unusually elegant narrative and slick editing, elevating a genre that has, more often than not, been defined by risibly low-budget recreations of real crimes.

Uniquely, the series also had the willing participation of the accused, whom it makes the subject of a compelling character study.

It was Durst who approached director Andrew Jarecki after the latter made a movie about him in 2010 - the somewhat-forgettable All Good Things, starring Ryan Gosling as Durst and Kirsten Dunst as wife Kathie.

Durst suggested the film-maker interview him so he could tell his side of the story.

The result is more than 20 hours of one-on-one chats between the enigmatic recluse, who had till then refused to speak to the media, and Jarecki, who directed the 2003 Oscar-nominated documentary Capturing The Friedmans, about a family shattered by allegations of child molestation.

The Jinx - a six-parter that will be shown here over three consecutive nights from April 1 to 3 - deftly interweaves these conversations with the supposed evidence against the man.

It starts with the grisly discovery in Texas of a headless torso, which turned out to belong to a man named Morris Black.

Black was a friend and neighbour to a mute woman named Dorothy Ciner - only Ciner was not a woman at all but, in one of several bizarre twists, a cross-dressing, multiple alias-using Durst.

When the latter is arrested but easily pays his US$250,000 bail, incredulous Texan authorities realise they are dealing with an extraordinarily wealthy man - a member of the Durst clan of billionaire real-estate developers in New York.

They learn he has been suspected of foul play since the unexplained disappearance of his young wife Kathie in 1982. He was also charged with - and subsequently cleared of - the 2000 murder of his friend Susan Berman.

You have to wait 27 minutes into the first episode to finally hear and see Durst himself, and as one policeman observes, he looks rather like a librarian - silver-haired and amiable as he talks chirpily to his second wife Debrah or makes self-deprecating jokes about his trifling role in the family business.

Could this gentle-seeming - yet undeniably creepy-looking - elderly gentleman be the same person who is accused of threatening to kill his own brother or who dismembered a body viciously (he had to stamp down on one of the bones to break it)?

You are never quite sure and this is the sort of moral ambiguity that Capturing The Friedmans portrayed so brilliantly. As Jarecki says on camera, his aim has always been to dig deeper into such "monster stories" and find out the "hopes and dreams" of these misfits.

Viewers, meanwhile, will find it hard not to scan Durst's face for clues as to whether he is lying. The appeal of shows about unsolved crimes is that they tap into the inner detective many fancy themselves to be.

That you can now also postmortem it all on social media may explain the revival such shows are enjoying, as evidenced by the word-of-mouth success of the hit US podcast Serial last year.

The Jinx also raises fascinating questions about Jarecki and his fellow film-makers' motivations at different stages of the process. The line between fact and fiction is never clear, and starts getting blurrer the second you find yourself tapping your feet to the music video-style title sequence, or suspecting that Jarecki may be manipulating Durst, coaxing him to talk by pandering to his vanity and self-pity.

Now, of course, a fascinating epilogue is playing out off camera.

As new details emerge, there has been speculation that the film-makers, who worked on this for eight years, may have deliberately held back evidence they uncovered, including the audio of Durst's supposed confession, until the series could air.

The authorities insist the documentary has nothing to do with Durst's recent re-arrest for Berman's death, but the Jarecki's lawyers believe he may be called as a witness during what is sure to be a ferocious legal battle. True-crime shows do not get much more exciting than this.

stlife@sph.com.sg