Robert Durst is escorted into Orleans Parish Prison after his arraignment Tuesday (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert).

With The Jinx, where does journalism end and entertainment begin?

March 17, 2015
Robert Durst is escorted into Orleans Parish Prison after his arraignment Tuesday (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert).

In one of the many chilling moments of HBO’s The Jinx, murder suspect and Manhattan real estate heir Robert Durst mumbles to himself during a break from his interview with director Andrew Jarecki, seemingly oblivious to the microphone still recording from its perch on his sweater. Durst was quietly rehearsing how to explain his previous murder testimony when his lawyer alerted him to the hot mic.

“I never intentionally, purposefully lied,” he repeated to his lawyer, his voice crescendoing. Durst added matter-of-factly: “I made mistakes. I did not tell the whole truth. Nobody tells the whole truth.”

The six-episode documentary series, which began airing in February, implies that Durst didn’t tell the whole truth when he was tried and acquitted for the murder of neighbor Morris Black in 2001. It also suggests he had a hand in the disappearance of wife Kathleen Durst in 1982 and death of friend Susan Berman in 2000. The most damning evidence, it seems, is a letter from Durst recovered by Berman’s adopted son. The handwriting in the letter bears a striking resemblance to the handwriting found on a note sent to police by Berman’s killer in 2000. In a second, climactic interview with Durst, Jarecki presents him with both documents. Amid belches hinting he might get physically sick, the 71-year-old panned the comparison. Yet after the interview he seemingly confessed to murdering all three people–on another hot mic, no less–before the screen, and series, faded to black.

The Jinx was no doubt a journalistic coup for Jarecki, co-writer Marc Smerling, and HBO. Durst was arrested Saturday in New Orleans in connection with Berman’s death—although it’s still unclear whether that came as a result of the program. But soon after its bombshell conclusion on Sunday night, questions arose regarding the final episode’s timeline, as well as filmmakers’ cooperation with police since unearthing new evidence. The finale appears to have misled viewers about the chronology of events, namely flipping the order of Durst’s interview with Jarecki and his 2013 arrest for violating his brother’s restraining order. Jarecki and Smerling dodged the question in an interview with The New York Times on Monday, and they’ve since canceled other media appearances and released a statement denying interview requests.

The confusion doesn’t nullify the rest of Jarecki & Co.’s investigation, but it does resurrect familiar questions for the genre. Documentarians don’t boast the same flexibility as writers–they generally need audio or video recordings of events in order to advance stories–and real-life chronology is easily sacrificed for theatrical effect. The issue emerging from The Jinx is where journalism ends and entertainment begins. That line has grown increasingly blurry in recent years, and the massive success of HBO’s series and its true-crime counterpart, Serial, suggest the trend could continue.

Both of the narrative-driven works take on a cinematic form, enticing their audiences to return with the implicit promise that more damning evidence would be unearthed in subsequent episodes. They also allowed viewers to peak behind the curtain. If Serial taught us anything–and The Jinx cemented this lesson–it’s that audiences are interested in methodology. Much of the HBO series finale focused on Jarecki’s preparation for his last sit-down with Durst, including personal admissions of pre-interview jitters and fear for his safety.

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How the two shows differ lies mostly in their conclusions, as many Serial detractors criticized its ambiguous ending. Host Sarah Koenig did not find a smoking gun that could prove Adnan Syed’s innocence or guilt–she hedged her personal judgment of him after laying all the evidence out for listeners. That was responsible journalism, regardless of whether there was no ultimate payoff or dramatic closure for the audience.

It couldn’t differ more from The Jinx, in which filmmakers seem certain of their own analyses. Handwritten letters from Durst and Berman’s killer appear incredibly similar and incriminating to a layperson. And the film’s subsequent portrayals of Jarecki, his crew, and a number of interview subjects bolsters this sentiment.

I made mistakes. I did not tell the whole truth. Nobody tells the whole truth.

That conviction, coupled with the final episode’s focus on how Jarecki’s team prepares for the interview, puts viewers on the inside. They know what Durst allegedly knows before he realizes as much. This makes for a uniquely inclusive reporting experience, one made especially suspenseful as the series’ clock steadily winds down. Durst doesn’t cop to Berman’s murder during that interview, though he does appear to privately admit all three slayings as the episode concludes.

It was too good to be true, of course–not Durst’s apparent confession but rather the timeline of events leading up to it. The final episode begins with Jarecki struggling to gain additional access to the real estate heir. And when Durst is arrested for violating his brother’s restraining order, the show implies that Jarecki leveraged this news to land a final interview, eventually portrayed in the series’ final moments. But Durst’s arrest came in August 2013, a year after the interview actually took place.

It’s unclear why Jarecki & Co. would rearrange those events. Simply omitting Durst’s arrest from the episode wouldn’t have prohibited such a conclusion–for the purposes of the broader investigation, that arrest was moot. The decision doesn’t appear to be so much an ethical lapse as deliberate obfuscation, an attempt to cram as much information as possible through a neat storytelling window.

The opportunity to end the show with Durst’s confession is seductive, to be sure. And it was pulled off masterfully, giving the audience something truly dramatic. The Jinx succeeded where Serial did not: It got its man.

But not without a cost. Crime is emblematic of the world’s natural state of chaos, and punishment is the human reaction to it, an effort to restore order. Neither of those phenomena is suited for tidy narrative arcs, regardless of audience or editorial pressure to mold them as such. The Jinx’s attempt to do so seems inexplicable in this particular case, and the filmmakers haven’t offered up any explanations as to why.

As Durst said during the break from his first interview, “Nobody tells the whole truth.”

David Uberti is a writer in New York. He was previously a media reporter for Gizmodo Media Group and a staff writer for CJR. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.