The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst is a cunningly titled, thoroughly remarkable documentary; the first of six parts will premiere on HBO this Sunday night. Durst has led the charmed life of the wealthy and may have been responsible for three deaths. He's been tabloid fodder for a few decades now, but The Jinx, directed by Andrew Jarecki and filmed by Marc Smerling, turns Durst's tale into a true-crime saga that transcends mere tabloid curiosity.
Durst, born into privilege thanks to his father's extensive real estate holdings in New York, has been suspected of being behind the disappearance of his first wife, Kathie, in 1982; of murdering a close friend, Susan Berman, in 2000; and went to trial for the 2001 murder of a neighbor, Morris Black.
The real-life Durst story — essentially a rebuke to a criminal-justice system that permits the rich to indulge eccentricities and freedoms to an extent unknown to the poor — became the subject of a 2010 feature film directed by Jarecki, All Good Things, starring Ryan Gosling as a Durst-like character. I didn't see that movie, but Durst did. After that, he contacted Jarecki and offered him something he hadn't granted any other media outlet: a series of exclusive interviews.
Jarecki and Smerling filmed Durst, who comes across in The Jinx as clever, arrogant, and aloof. His demeanor struck me initially as perplexed, as though he didn't really understand what he was giving the filmmakers in jabbering freely about his upbringing and his relationships with the people who've died during his life. But as The Jinx proceeded, I realized I was witnessing something to which I was a stranger: Durst has never known an insecure moment in his life. Cocooned in luxury, he behaves as though any bad thing he does can be fixed with money.
It would be easy to detest such a man, but the filmmakers grant Durst his humanity, allowing us to see the charm, and occasional flashes of humor, that animate the man when he sometimes emerges from the fog of good fortune. In the two episodes I've seen, The Jinx makes good, sparing use of dramatizing some of the moments Durst describes. The documentary is filled with other fascinating people such as Durst's current wife, Debrah Lee Charatan, who seems like a very tough customer, and one of Durst's defense lawyers, the Texan Dick DeGuerin. If I ever get accused of murder, that's the guy I want to defend me.
If you have any interest in true-crime stories, I'd imagine The Jinx will satisfy your craving sumptuously. If, like me, you're skeptical of the genre, The Jinx might make you rethink the worthiness of it. Me, I'm now a convert.
The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst premieres Sunday, Feb. 8 at 8 p.m. on HBO.