By Matt Connolly
All Good Things
Dir. Andrew Jarecki, U.S., Magnolia Pictures
In theory, Andrew Jarecki, director of the 2003 documentary Capturing the Friedmans, is a great choice to bring the tabloid tragedy of Robert Durst to the big screen. The heir to a New York real estate dynasty, Durst looked to be the main suspect after his wife mysteriously disappeared in 1982. These suspicions never coalesced into a formal chargeâ€”a fact that many believed had much to do with his wealth and well-connected family name. And the eyebrow-raising near misses with the law didnâ€™t end there. After being suspected (but again not charged) in the murder of friend Susan Berman eighteen years later, Durst was finally put on trial in 2003 for the slaying of neighbor Morris Black, but was later acquitted. Itâ€™s pretty sordid stuff; but then again, so was the morass of sexual abuse allegations that tore apart a â€śnormalâ€ť upper-middle class Jewish family in Friedmans. Working within a milieu of highly publicized (and factually ambiguous) criminal accusations similar to that dramatized here, Jarecki offered an assiduously even-handed account that acknowledged both the tortured humanity of the suspects and the complexities of the legal system that charged them. And while the filmâ€™s lengthy string of revelations made for juicy, twist-a-minute viewing, it seemed to come from a spirit of honest inquiry.
All Good Things technically leaves the question of Durstâ€™s guilt unresolved, with Jarecki and screenwriters Marc Smerling and Marcus Hinchey taking their â€śinspirationâ€ť from the Durst killings while changing many of the charactersâ€™ names. The real mystery, however, is who killed the clear-eyed directorial inquisitiveness evident in Jareckiâ€™s earlier work. That Jarecki and company have turned this true-life tragedy into an eye-rolling piece of high-toned crap is certainly disappointing given the caliber of talent involved. But itâ€™s the filmâ€™s cold, almost hateful tone towards its own subject matter that is most dispiriting. Given the opportunity to complicate this seemingly cut-and-dry case of privilege and violence, All Good Things panders to the lowest common denominator, alternately trivializing the Durstsâ€™ dysfunction and goosing it with barrel-scraping formal gimmicks. Perhaps Jarecki thought he could tap into some dubious eat-the-rich zeitgeist, but the results feel so garish that I ended up resenting the filmmakers long after I forgot whatever ill-considered â€ślessonsâ€ť I was meant to glean from the Durstsâ€™ travails.
After some opening imagesâ€”a shadowy blond figure, complete with trench coat and heels, dumping a corpse off a bridgeâ€”that immediately frame its tale of moneyed madness through the greasy lens of B-movie schlock, the film moves to an aging Durst (here renamed David Marks and played by Ryan Gosling) on the witness stand. Prodded by an attorney, David begins to reminisce on the events leading up to his various suspected crimes. His carefree early years (captured via grainy home-movie footage) were cut short after watching his mother leap to her death from the roof of the familyâ€™s garage. In his twenties, he aimlessly performed low-level tasks around the properties owned by his disapproving Manhattan real-estate mogul father, Sanford (Frank Langhella), until in 1971, he meets-cute with Katie (Kirsten Dunst), a middle-class beauty living in one of Sanfordâ€™s many properties whose leaky sink David comes to repair. The two soon marry and move to Vermont, where David looks to escape the preordained life in New York real estate set out for him by his father and opens a health food store. Their edenic life proves short-lived. Sanford eventually forces David back to New York and into the family business: first collecting cash payments from Sanfordâ€™s shadier tenants in Times Square, and later moving into a cushy office position.
Gosling and Dunstâ€™s low-key chemistry in these early scenes hint at the film that All Good Things might have been had it bothered to ground itself in the specifics of the Marksâ€™ romance. Dunst has some of the most dreamily sad eyes in movies today, effervescent when alight with joy and cutting when dulled by despondency; and she is matched in expressivity by Gosling, whose slightly weary baby blues offer flashes of the closely-guarded private worlds alive in his charactersâ€™ heads. When her earthy intimacy meets his contained sensuality, some genuine sparks occasionally fly. So itâ€™s odd that when All Good Things finally moves towards the heartrending meat-and-potatoes of its story, it begins to rapidly distance us from David, turning this doomed relationship tale into the prestige-pic version of a cut-rate monster movie.
Cracks begin to form in David and Katieâ€™s marriage when David reveals he doesnâ€™t want children, for fear of being a bad father, anxieties that stem back to his motherâ€™s suicide. Jarecki handles these scenes with distasteful luridness, figuring Davidâ€™s emotional traumas as toe-curling revelations in and of themselves, rather than the broken foundation upon which David attempts (and fails) to stand. And by conflating his mental instability with his descent into the dreary morass of his fatherâ€™s real estate dealings, the film seems to be awkwardly groping for a larger connection between Davidâ€™s inner state and the hedonism of late-Seventies Manhattan.
Such linkages are largely DOA, though, since Jarecki and company seem most interested in turning David into a dead-eyed boogeyman. We become largely aligned with an increasingly frightened Katie, whose attempts at starting a career in medicine get violently shot down by an ever more controlling David. This has the risible effect of turning her into a one-note victim, suspiciously leafing through her husbandâ€™s papers and taking hits of cocaine to dull the pain. (Among the filmâ€™s single memorable shots is when she gets high for the first time, her glassy-eyed disorientation underlined by a simple but effective slow track-in.) Soon, little disagreements explode into bouts of domestic violence, as when David drags Katie out of a family dinner by her hair after she denies his request to leave together. These moments are queasy by their very nature, but quickly cross the line into rank exploitation once Jarecki begins to construct them for maximum cheap thrills. The nadir comes the night of Katieâ€™s â€śdisappearanceâ€ť, when she enters their darkened upstate lake house unaware of Davidâ€™s presence. In a fourth-rate horror trick, Katie comes into the frame in a medium close-up and leans down into the shot, only to reveal (gasp!) David behind her, his body cloaked in shadow, his presence punctuated by an uptick in Rob Simonsenâ€™s oppressively bombastic score.
When not indulging in slasher-flick stylistics, Jarecki and DP Michael Seresin give All Good Things an icy, washed-out color palette, full of dull boardroom grays and the cool blues of a darkened, moonlit apartment. But this is one of those movies where even the attempt at aesthetic coherence feels like an affront. Why bother to nattily plot out the filmâ€™s visual vocabulary when the story itself is treated as little more than ripped-from-the-headlines sensationalism, devoid of nuance and empathy?
By the time All Good Things heads into its final act, camp has reared its head. Hiding out in Galveston Bay, Texas, after fleeing New York almost twenty years after Katie's disappearance, David somewhat inexplicably disguises himself as a mute woman, donning a frumpy housedress, thick glasses, and a curly wig. (Think a svelte, Caucasian version of Tyler Perryâ€™s Madea.) Yet as the film winds its way through Davidâ€™s latter-day crimes (committed with the help of the singularly named Malvern Bump, a lonely old neighbor played by Philip Baker Hall), the impulse to dismiss All Good Things gets frequently short-circuited by the filmâ€™s own smug stance towards its material. Its tone of lazy self-satisfaction makes all the more exasperating the filmâ€™s conclusion, which maintains an air of â€śambiguityâ€ť around Davidâ€™s supposed crimes while blunt-as-bricks intertitles solemnly inform us of Davidâ€™s continued evasion from the law. Donâ€™t you see: Jarecki has a point to make about the corrupting power of wealth, the unknowable darkness of the human heart, the unsavory influence that the rich have in society, etc. As much as I wanted to chuckle haughtily at how much gall it takes to wrap this sneering, overcooked mess in a moralistic bow, the snickers got stuck in my throat. You can laugh at â€śtrashyâ€ť, but this is just trash.