The gruesome, execution-style murder of writer Susan Berman in December 2000 has remained unsolved. But this week, as the New York Times reports, the case has been reopened — and the fascinating thing is that this may well be because of HBO’s true crime series The Jinx.
Berman was a mobster’s daughter, and she wrote nonfiction and fiction about her family and mob life. Before she died, she told her friend that she had “information that’s going to blow the top off things,” as detailed in the New York Magazine article, “Who Killed the Gangster’s Daughter?” Considering her mob connections, the execution-style murder could have been written off as a mob hit.
And yet, one problem remained: Berman was a friend of the notorious Robert Durst, a real estate scion whose wife “disappeared,” and who was acquitted of a brutal murder in Texas in 2000 (where it was known, at the least, that he took the time to dismember the body). Durst was a suspect in Berman’s death — evidence placed him in California at the same time as the killing, and he had sent Berman $50,000, but that was it. Durst inspired the fiction film based on his life and his first wife’s disappearance, Andrew Jarecki’s Ryan Gosling-starring All Good Things, and he’s currently starring in the six-part HBO documentary series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, also directed by Jarecki.
People had a knack for disappearing and dying around Durst, whose general air and mien seemed shipped in from outer space, and yet he had a talent for not having any actual evidence regarding the crimes stick to him. That’s the story that The Jinx has laid out in a series of creepy episodes. Durst sat down for an interview with Jarecki, where he came off as flat and dead, like an alien in a human suit. Jarecki also interviewed friends and lawmen surrounding the three cases involving Durst: the disappearance of his wife, Kathy, the Texas murder of Morris Black, and the murder of Susan Berman.
True crime is a legitimate phenomenon right now, with the podcast Serial drawing an audience of millions. The Jinx, as gripping as it is, is not quite in Serial‘s league as far as addictiveness goes. Part of this is by design, of course — if Serial was about Sarah Koeing’s dogged pursuit of the truth, a truth that might set Adnan Syed free, then The Jinx is about a very likely guilty man who’s been able to walk free. Both Serial and The Jinx approach justice via entertainment — what we could call a form of “advocacy journalism” — by two different avenues, and The Jinx‘s path is far queasier, putting us face to face with a possibly monstrous man, who’s frail, creepy, and narcissistic enough to nearly be bragging about what he got away with. Both fail in providing anything of comfort towards the dead women and men at the center of the cases.
Yet the fascinating thing about The Jinx is that — if the evidence revealed in the fifth episode holds up — it may be playing a role in proving Durst guilty of his crimes. The short version is that a “cadaver” envelope which told the police about Berman’s death and her body, mailed to local department in “Beverley Hills,” may match a letter sent to Berman from Durst, with the same misspelling of Beverly Hills. Jarecki ends this by promising that next week, for the sixth and final episode, he’ll confront Durst with this envelope. But in the meantime, seeing that the case is officially “reopened,” with new witnesses and new evidence, there may be justice for Berman someday.
The Jinx didn’t receive great reviews at the outset — Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz called it “interview with an asshole,” which is fairly apt — and part of that feels due to its need to be a miniseries. Jarecki is doing yeoman’s work to paint a portrait of New York City and power, looking into the Durst Corporation and what it’s like to be a son of one of the city’s top real estate companies (it’s like being an American prince, in short), and the entitlement, arrogance, and presumed innocence that come with that privilege. Much of Episode 5 was devoted to trying to get an audience with Durst’s brother, Douglas, who’s the head of the corporation now. Since the crimes, Robert Durst is persona non grata in that family. Yet by trying to talk to Douglas and the Durst Corporation, we can see the culture of secrecy and security built into a billion-dollar corporation.
The Jinx is a flawed piece of entertainment. It is a flawed work of advocacy, and for the average viewer, it’s hard to see where the truth and justice lies beyond all the egos that are jousting for view, from Durst to Jarecki to the grieving families of the victims. (I’ve never seen All Good Things, but I’m certainly reminded of its existence every time The Jinx airs.) Despite those complaints, however, if it is able to introduce new evidence into cases that have been cold for years, it may just end up being useful despite itself. It’s hard to speak truth to power when you’re dealing with a powerful family, and the value of The Jinx — perhaps initially just an effort to show the world that Robert Durst exists, that he’s not just a walking ghost — is that it may put away a man who could be a monster. I’m not sure if someone writing a prestigious antihero series could plot it any better.