Given the frenzied response to the podcast “Serial,” HBO’s true-crime docuseries “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst” could hardly be better timed. Moreover, “The Jinx’s” backstory — how the reclusive Durst, suspected of three murders but never convicted, agreed to an interview with filmmaker Andrew Jarecki, who dramatized his life in the movie “All Good Things” — is practically a show unto itself. Gripping and slightly unnerving, Durst’s impassive demeanor ensures this six-part series will be widely discussed, trumping some artistic choices that, like Durst’s account of events, can easily be second-guessed.
The premiere begins by revisiting 2001 and what sounds like a New York Post headline: a headless torso found floating in Galveston Bay, Texas. Police eventually connect the dismembered body (one of them grotesquely recalls fishing it out with his hand) to Durst, a privileged heir to a Manhattan real-estate empire, who had turned up in Texas, oddly, after having been a suspect in the 1982 disappearance of his wife Kathie, as well as an unsolved murder in 2000.
Small and twitchy, Durst hardly looks like a criminal mastermind. “Really? This guy? Did that?” one of the detectives recalls thinking in regard to the Texas murder upon first catching sight of him.
The story then takes what amounts to a bizarre left turn, chronicling how Durst contacted Jarecki in 2012, shortly before the release of “All Good Things.” That resulted in an extensive interview, in which Durst provides his version of events.
To call Durst enigmatic borders on understatement, and the conversation with him is augmented by interviews and video from depositions, including one in which Durst’s former mother-in-law refers to him as an “oddball.” One suspects few would argue the point, beginning with Durst himself.
Perhaps because all that footage is so compelling, the periodic use of re-enactments with actors to augment the visual palette feels particularly unnecessary, clouding the program’s documentary feel.
Notably, the project was not produced under the auspices of HBO Documentary Films (Jarecki’s partner is Marc Smerling, of “Capturing the Friedmans”), which eschews such reenactments.
Here, along with the musical scoring, they’re clearly intended to give “The Jinx” more of a cinematic, showbiz-infused feel. Although it’s not a fatal flaw, the material is so absorbing on its own, it’s a shame the producers didn’t simply play it straight.
Even with six episodes (two were previewed), there’s an almost dizzying amount of ground to cover, from Durst’s colorful family history (his fearful brother hired a bodyguard because of him) to the circumstances surrounding his gone-missing ex-wife and Durst’s not-particularly-convincing explanation of his whereabouts. Those interviewed include several of Kathie’s friends as well as those who investigated Durst, among them Jeanine Pirro, who parlayed her exposure as a New York prosecutor and judge into her current Fox News gig.
Now 71, Durst is unapologetic about his eccentricity, and even somewhat cavalier about his blood-splattered past. As the title makes clear, if all of this bad stuff has surrounded him just by happenstance, he is, indeed, a victim of extraordinarily bad fortune.
For HBO, by contrast, this modest departure represents the kind of headline-grabbing programming sure to yield dividends, particularly in elite Manhattan enclaves where the Dursts held sway. From that perspective, the filmmakers and network, at least, should come away from “The Jinx” feeling lucky.