Contemplating The Jinx

Coming off of the massive success of this year’s widely popular podcast series Serial, HBO’s six-part true-crime documentary series The Jinx has garnered much of the same buzz as its counterpart. With similarly mysterious cases, the two true-crime investigations have proven popular subject matter for capturing the attention of their audiences. For me, director and producer Andrew Jarecki succeeded in creating a series that was, overall, nothing short of mesmerizing.

Perhaps one of the main reasons for this was the intrigue garnered by the bizarre, blinking, potentially schizophrenic multi-millionaire Robert Durst. Examining the three murders connected to a son of one of America’s wealthiest families, The Jinx instantly benefits from the intrigue of its main character. At once protagonist and antagonist, Durst is almost instantly called into question over his involvement in the disappearance of his wife, the execution of his best friend, and the dismemberment of his neighbor. However strained a defense of Durst may seem throughout the show given the amount of evidence piled against him, the interviews between him and Jarecki reveal an undeniable level of humanity.

Through ongoing clips of candid interviews, archival home footage, and process pieces filmed by Jarecki, we see Durst as a human being momentarily detached from the atrocities he’s accused of committing. Contrasted with the beautifully shot—if not gruesome—visual reenactments of the cases, these moments of humanity make the job of the audience a challenging one. It is easy to imagine Durst’s unmistakable involvement in the crimes, but it is harder to avoid feeling pity for him.

In the second episode, Jarecki directs the focus to Durst’s childhood, his mother’s suicide, the pressures of his father and his overall feelings of purposelessness. Characterized as the classic “poor little rich boy,” Durst is perhaps the most pitiful villain there ever was. At one point, he describes the friendships he made during a stay in prison as being the most sincere relationships he’d ever known. The relationship we see grow between Durst and Jarecki throughout the filming is yet another source of sympathy.

At one point Jarecki admits, “I like the guy,” and viewers would find it hard to disagree. Perhaps this is in part due to his frailty, or perhaps it’s due to the story of his lonely childhood, but the result is the same: by the end of the series you can’t help but feel bad for the man whose only friend is the director trying to send him to prison.

In this way, The Jinx offers a complexity to what otherwise might read as a late night criminal profile you’d find on cable. The show eclipses its potentially tired subject matter through the delivery of its material and through Jarecki’s dedication to showing the human behind the headlines. Where we may be steered to deciding a “guilty” verdict early on, it is not without forcing us to also struggle with our own empathy for such a criminal. The final moments of the finale are thus momentarily heartbreaking, shocking, rewarding, and disturbing. As has been reported throughout the media, Jarecki gets the confession he perhaps never expected. Unknowingly recorded, Durst mutters off camera, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.” It follows an intense interview where Jarecki delivers his betrayal, Durst realizes he’s caught, and we realize that the man we’ve come to at least partially sympathize with is actually fully aware of the crimes he’s committed.

The series was a phenomenal investigation into the psychology of crime, the proceedings of the American legal system, and the powerful role media, art, and film play in our society. Durst was ultimately arrested on the eve of the series finale, but don’t let knowing that fact keep you from watching this remarkable piece of television. The combination of the story itself, the filmmaking and editing, and its relevancy to current issues within our legal system make this a must see. The Jinx can be found on HBO.

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