I’ll admit right now that I’m a true crime junkie. Maybe it’s because I work for a lawyer or maybe I’m just morbid-minded but, for whatever reason, I am fascinated by this stuff. And while we all love to watch a good mystery and see if we can solve it before everyone else, it’s the mysteries without a solution that hold a special grip on my imagination. That’s why I was really looking forward to seeing the film All Good Things. Directed by Andrew Jarecki and starring Ryan Gosling, All Good Things is based on not one true crime case but three! (And two of those crimes remain unsolved to this day.)
All Good Things is based on the life of Andrew Durst, who was born into a wealthy New York family just to eventually find himself accused — at one time or another — of two murders and actually put on trial for a third. Oh, and did I mention that in-between being accused of killing people, Durst also found the time to drop out of high New York society and, despite being a very wealthy man, wandering around the country like a homeless transient? And, would you also believe that when Durst eventually ended up moving down to Galveston, Texas, he apparently also became a transvestite? And once Durst was in Galveston, he ended up living in a run-down boarding house with another transient who Durst eventually ended up decapitating? Of course, all of this happened long after the mysterious disappearance of his first wife and the execution-style shooting his best friend (who also happened to be the daughter of a Las Vegas mob boss). Durst, it should be noted, has only been put on trial once and, in that case, was acquitted. (For a better account of the various unproven allegations against Robert Durst, click here.)
Yes, Robert Durst is a man who has found himself at the middle of several very intriguing mysteries and All Good Things pretty much sticks to the facts of the case, recreating all the scenes that we Durst watchers are familiar with while leaving the ultimate question of Durst’s guilt or innocence ambiguous. For legal reasons, the names are changed but that’s about it. The film even begins with a title card telling us that the film is based on the Durst case even if Ryan Gosling is technically playing a character named David Marks. We watch as David meets and romances sweet but lower class Katie (Kirsten Dunst) despite the disapproval of his wealthy father. (David’s father is a real estate mogul who owes his fortunes to the peep shows and grindhouses on 42nd Street.) Once David and Katie have married, we watch the marriage turn into a nightmare as David grows increasingly abusive and Katie starts to abuse drugs. We meet all the familiar characters that we know about from reading about the case, especially David’s devoted friend Deborah (Lilly Rabe). We see the way that Deborah fanatically defends David after Katie mysteriously vanishes and eventually, we see David in Galveston, a blank-faced recluse who has lost the ability (if he ever had it) to exist in reality. Yes, it’s an interesting story but does the film do it justice?
Frustratingly, the answer is yes and no.
There’s a great movie to be found in the life of Robert Durst and unfortunately, director Andew Jarecki doesn’t find that great movie with All Good Things. Despite telling a fictionalized version of a true story, Jarecki still approaches the material as if he’s making another documentary. By simply concentrating on the public record of the Durst case (and, for the most part, declining to engage in any poetic license while telling the story), he keeps his distance from the characters and their world and, as a result, you watch fascinated because the story is so bizarre but not because you have any emotional investment in anything happening onscreen. Like a good documentarian, Jarecki concentrates on providing the evidence and leaving the ultimate verdict to the audience. If this film was a documentary about Robert Durst, this would be commendable. However, All Good Things is a movie about a vaguely sinister guy named David Marks who remains a cipher throughout the entire film.
However, this is not the fault of the cast who manage to redeem this movie with several carefully conceived character turns. In a frustrating and vague role, Ryan Gosling gives a far better performance than anyone would really have the right to expect. He plays the role with a vague sense of blank desperation, creating a portrait of a man who wants to fit in with reality but just doesn’t know how to do it. When we first meet see David wandering around 42nd street and struggling to maintain a facade of normalcy, it’s hard not to feel sorry for him. He looks like a lot child and your natural reaction is to want to protect him and help him find his place in the world. Add that vulnerability to the fact that he looks like Ryan Gosling and you can believe that Kirsten Dunst’s character would find him attractive and would eventually marry him, despite his quirks. Its only once David is married (and, in theory, no longer has to worry about losing Dunst) that he starts to show his true face. Any woman who has ever been in an abusive relationship will know the type of person that David Marks is. As played by Gosling, he becomes every boyfriend or husband who has ever transformed into a different person once we’ve made the mistake of falling in love with him. He’s every man we’ve ever been happy to have out of our life even as we wondered if we were to blame for whatever went wrong. Gosling’s strongest moments come when David simply stares at his own reflection, the look on his face indicating that he’s just as confused by himself as we are. Kirsten Dunst is sympathetic as his wife and there’s excellent character turns from Frank Langella, Philip Baker Hall, Diane Venora, and Lilly Rabe.
So, what I recommend All Good Things? I would. It makes for a good introduction to the Durst case and, if nothing else, it’s worth seeing for Gosling’s performance. The definitive version of Durst’s case hasn’t been told yet but All Good Things is, at the very least, a start.