There’s something terribly spooky about Robert Durst’s eyes in HBO’s new six-part documentary series about his life. It’s not just the heavy blinking, which sometimes looks more like flinching. It’s the glazed darkness of them, the way they don’t seem to have pupils, like a pair of impenetrable, black 8-balls. They look like they belong to a supernatural creature.
Those eyes, shown at length in “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst,” are riveting in their strong suggestion of malice, deception, and amorality. They are what lured me into this series, which looks into three murders, one suspect (Durst), and no murder convictions. The reclusive son of a billionaire Manhattan real estate developer, Durst is like the characters we usually only find on scripted TV dramas. He’s the oddball that the detectives on “Law & Order” or even HBO’s own “True Detective” have been eyeing and “liking” for years, while he continues to slip through the justice system.
Generally speaking, I’m not a big fan of true-crime shows, the ones that litter cable channels such as Investigation Discovery and TV newsmagazines such as “20/20.” I find the re-creations particularly hard to take, as they provide artificial and sometimes almost campily melodramatic filler. They undermine the “true” part of the crime story. And the pieces are usually written and structured to baldly manipulate the viewer, a televisual equivalent to online clickbait.
But “The Jinx,” which is directed by Andrew Jarecki and shot by Marc Smerling (the team behind “Capturing the Friedmans”), is presented with noir-like elegance and equanimity. It doesn’t smack of sensationalism as it reveals more and more information, just as the podcast “Serial” unfolded without tabloid-like hyperbole. The re-creations are minimal, and relatively tasteful. It’s a little like those long Vanity Fair crime pieces filled with photos of mansions and murder victims from earlier eras, all somehow made more interesting by the fact that the criminal came from money and has had all the advantages.
In the two episodes of “The Jinx” made available for review, Durst talks with surprising candor, it seems, about each crime he is suspected of committing. Kathleen McCormack, his first wife, disappeared in 1982, after their marriage had begun to deteriorate. Her body was never found. His friend Susan Berman, a key witness in the McCormack case, was found dead in her California home in 2000, around the time the McCormack case was reopened. She was shot twice in the head. And his 71-year-old neighbor in a Galveston, Texas, boarding house was found in pieces, floating in Galveston Bay in the early 2000s. Durst was arrested for murder, but citing self-defense, he was acquitted. He did admit to dismembering the man, however. He served time in prison for bail jumping and evidence tampering.
The series is filled with stark details that make each of these mysteries, and a few others, truly bizarre and memorable. Some are almost comic. For example, Durst was in disguise during his years in Galveston as a deaf-mute woman named Dorothy Ciner. During that period, he communicated with his landlord through notes. This documentary, which promises to twist and turn a bit with each new episode, is one of those macabre sagas that once again proves that truth is stranger than fiction.
The most haunting part of “The Jinx,” though, is Durst himself and his ice-cold eyes. They’ll send chills right up your spine.