23 July 2024
Review | ‘The Jinx: Part Two’ is a victim of its own success
0 11 mins 3 mths

If the first four episodes of Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling’s “The Jinx: Part Two” prove anything, it’s that some documentaries, like their subjects, can’t leave well enough alone.

That isn’t, for the nosy rubbernecks among us, a bad thing. But it isn’t exactly good, either.

Don’t get me wrong: “Part Two” is a fine addendum to the archive of texts about Robert Durst, the eldest son of New York real estate magnate Seymour Durst. Durst had long been suspected of killing his wife, Kathy, who disappeared in 1982, his friend Susan Berman, who was found shot in the head at her Beverly Hills home in 2000, and his neighbor Morris Black, whose dismembered remains were dumped in Galveston Bay. He had also — despite admitting to dismembering Black — gotten away with all of it.

The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst” became the biggest true-crime obsession since O.J. Simpson when Jarecki confronted Durst with damning new evidence. The finale concluded with audio of Durst mumbling to himself in a bathroom, apparently confessing. “Killed ’em all, of course,” he said, unaware his mic was still on and recording.

“Part Two” opens with audio from March 14, 2015, the day before that infamous finale aired. Bob, calling from prison, informs his lawyer he was arrested by the FBI earlier that afternoon. “I had a revolver, a whole lot of money, like $80,000, um, what else, oh, and I had — I was using that, uh, you know, that phony ID,” he says, so casually he might be ordering takeout. “Oh,” his lawyer says. “Yup,” Durst says. There’s a pause. His lawyer asks how he is. “I’m all right. I mean I’ve been here before.”

The new chapters competently introduce new and curious characters from Bob’s universe (dwelling with particular interest on his old friend Nick Chavin and Bob’s second wife, Debrah Charatan). It unearths some previously unreported details as it follows the prosecutors trying to build a case as well as a couple of juicy strategic tidbits. The docuseries plainly relishes chasing Durst by (among other things) using surveillance footage and recorded lines to wrest from him the kind of material it used to gently elicit. But much of the new material, while interesting, feels ancillary. If this were a DVD, most of what’s here would pop up under “Extras.”

Above all, “Part Two” tries — and mostly fails, at least in the four episodes critics received — to coherently reckon with the massive phenomenon that “The Jinx” (and Bob Durst) became.

The docuseries nevertheless benefits from one of those peculiar coincidences that continually threaten to make the story about this story better than the story itself: O.J. Simpson died less than two weeks before “The Jinx: Part Two” was set to premiere. Through sheer happenstance, this reprise of the Durst story comes on the cusp of our recent collective effort to reflect on the megaspectacles — and metaspectacles — these murder cases become. Even the connections between them are suggestive (the man who finally put Durst behind bars was recommended to Jarecki by none other than former Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark).

Durst’s case differed in crucial respects from Simpson’s. But there are notable parallels: Durst, too, was a rich abusive husband known for cheating on his blond, much-younger wife, whom he tried to dominate and control until she sought a divorce. Like Simpson, he went (briefly) on the lam rather than turn himself in. Like Simpson, he was caught with firearms and a lot of cash, ended up on trial, hired a “dream team” of lawyers, and was acquitted despite an astonishing amount of physical evidence. Like Simpson’s, his defense team offered an alternative account so bizarre and compelling the jury bought it. Also like Simpson — whose “hypothetical” tell-all “(If) I Did It” was initially titled “I Want to Tell You” — Durst just couldn’t shut up. Temperamentally unable to coast on the ingenious legal fictions that freed them, both men demonstrated a self-destructive but insuperable need to tell their story their way.

As for Durst, specifically: He didn’t just like the feeling that he was getting away with something. He chased it. Durst’s 2001 arrest (for the murder of Morris Black) happened only because, having just jumped bail and fled Texas with $37,000 in cash, he decided to steal a chicken sandwich from a grocery store instead of paying for it. “The Jinx” was clearly Durst’s latest game.

The most gratifying aspect of his confession was the sense that he’d finally lost. For a wily performer who relishes tricking and trolling the people watching him, nothing is more humiliating than actual transparency. Durst’s panicked soliloquy was maximally dramatic precisely because it was not theater.

That the documentarians managed to elicit that incredible admission from him — and (as they revealed in interviews) didn’t even discover the audio for two years — seemed like a miracle.

Put differently, the making of “The Jinx” turned out to be so rich (and controversial) a subject that the story of the documentary’s production — and aftereffects — has chipped away at the centrality the documentary once enjoyed. No one hates to be narrated more than a documentarian; after all, they know what it involves. And it’s no secret that “The Jinx” was heavily investigated, and corrected, and criticized. I assume the docuseries is partly responding to the debates it inspired. Also, perhaps, to Bob’s funniest move during his trial, claiming that his incriminating statements in “The Jinx” were made at Andrew Jarecki’s suggestion. A feeble sally, to be sure, but also the kind of half-joke that proved Bob, no matter how ill he looked, was still kicking.

The same can’t quite be said of “Part Two.” While Part One of “The Jinx” was experimental and self-assured (if a little soapy), the sequel at points feels more reactionary and self-important than exploratory — and more than a little bit inert.

The trouble with the new installment of “The Jinx” isn’t, in other words, that its subject has died. Or that Durst was finally convicted, or that the conviction lasted a measly three months (having been vacated on a technicality when Durst died with an appeal still pending). It isn’t that Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney John Lewin — who emerges as the documentary’s dogged new protagonist — is far too hearty in appearance (and conventional in his tastes) to sustain the moody tone and cheesy, out-of-focus reenactments Jarecki favors.

The problem isn’t even that those reenactments include a suitably blurry “Bob” stand-in watching “The Jinx” on his television and listening to “Jinx”-related” broadcasts as he flees. Or that we hear about Bob’s reactions to each episode of “The Jinx,” drop in on Bob being interrogated about “The Jinx,” and eavesdrop while friends reproach Bob — in recorded phone conversations — for doing “The Jinx.” The show sometimes drifts into the cringey self-praise and sour stagecraft I associate with the aftermath of a breakup, complete with an endless array of flattering selfies — billboards for “The Jinx,” newscasters praising “The Jinx,” Jarecki doing interviews about “The Jinx,” people watching and reacting to “The Jinx” and even recognizing Durst because of “The Jinx.” Straining to make up for Bob’s absence, the series ends up channeling his need to self-mythologize. Without the humor. (At one point “Part Two,” attempting to conjure a sense of occasion and with no discernible irony, shows a TV set playing the opening scene from “Part One.”)

The problem might be, rather, that no one (in this installment) risks anything real. The first season explored cold cases but abounded in present-tense stakes. Durst was obviously gambling with his freedom. Kathy’s friends and family featured heavily, and Jarecki himself had an arc. He initially saw himself as an open-minded filmmaker but evolved into a character who developed goals that specifically opposed Durst’s. When Jarecki finally confronted Bob, his hands were shaking. No one in “Part Two” comes close to feeling that level of risk. Or suspense.

Except Durst, who this time withheld his cooperation.

The second problem is that Durst’s story achieved cultural escape velocity. Much like the O.J. Simpson trial, the real thing now exceeds any single attempt to narrate it. “The Jinx” was a stylish undertaking whose sillier flourishes one could forgive because the shocking story at its heart was comparatively unknown and the final revelation changed everything. Jarecki et al. have since lost access to their subject and control of the story partly because they became a crucial part of it, and there is no elegant way to talk about your own importance.

In short, the problem for “Part Two” might be a slight variant on that old saw about truth being stranger than fiction. Raw footage of Robert Durst’s trial, which you can easily find on YouTube, is frequently more dramatic — and engaging — than the polished documentary Jarecki and Smerling cobbled together without him in an attempt to reclaim (and repackage) the case they blew wide open.

The Jinx: Part Two premieres April 21 on HBO and Max, with subsequent episodes airing weekly.

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