REVIEW: True Love (and Good Filmmaking) Goes Awry in All Good Things
All Good Things, Andrew Jarecki's feature follow-up to his dark family scrapbook Capturing the Friedmans, has got a whopper story, two magnetic leads, and a killer case of the directorial bends. Where Friedmans, a documentary, derived athletic momentum from its balance of gold mine material and Jarecki's skillful dedication to ambiguity, All Good Things seems to cast around inside its story of a rebel heir and the bluebloody tragedy his life becomes. It tries on this angle and that tempo, but never finds a confident design for its content or its characters. I want to say it's the kind of thing a director can miss by a millimeter, but Jarecki's telling of the Robert Durst story flails too far off course, too often, to retain the viewer's good faith.
The film presents the rare instance of a true story that has been fictionalized and yet seems bent on cleaving to its least useful facts. In a nod to the Friedmans's eerie home movie habit, the opening uses silent, color-saturated footage of young David Marks (based on Durst and played by Ryan Gosling as an adult) frolicking with his bright-eyed mother to suggest the film's broadest and most boring theme: Things are not always what they seem. Check the shadowy dude lounging in the background, far off from the family: That's patriarch Sanford Marks (Frank Langella), a real estate tycoon with a combination vault where his heart should be. He's tight in general, but specifically with the sheckels, which means he'd rather send his son -- a young man by the early 1970s -- to check on a property's leaky faucet than shell out for a plumber.
It's there that David meets Katie (Kirsten Dunst), an enchanting, even-tempered young woman of the type Dunst wears as well and as simply as a kerchief and a bateau top. Freshly arrived in New York City from Mineola, she has dreams of medical school, which her instantaneous involvement with David postpones. Unhappy with a future in the family business (Sanford is shilling dreams of a re-vamped 42nd Street to city officials even as he leases out the area's sleaziest establishments) and sick of tea and tennis whites, David convinces Katie to run away to Vermont, where they open a health-food store (from which the film takes its title) and live a humble life. This all happens in a flash, and just as quickly they are back in New York, after David succumbs to a psychic karate chop Sanford had his driver haul him all the way to Vermont to dispense. The transition feels stilted and false, but we are meant to understand that out of concern for Katie's happiness David trades "All Good Things" for a bunch of really nice things.
Back in New York, Katie is inducted into the world of hardened society types, and within a couple of scenes is looking pretty hard herself. Bitterly disappointed over David's aversion to having children, she begins hoovering cocaine and plotting a separate life. David gets into primal scream therapy to work out the trauma of witnessing his mother's suicide as a boy, but shows signs of having a visitor or two upstairs. He talks to himself in the bathroom (and if that makes you crackers, then I'm a certified loon) and throws Aspie tantrums when things don't go to his liking. Bipolar? Schizophrenic? Misunderstood with a mean right hook? "I've never been closer to anyone," Katie says after David humiliates her in front of her wholesome, ham-eating family, "And I don't know you at all."
I began to wonder if Jarecki could relate: Clear (if fussily rendered) judgments are made about what David did and didn't do, but his motivations remain opaque despite being the character with whom we are most closely aligned. Jarecki uses the testimony of an elder David as a narration device, though his reflections on his life with Katie add little to their story. In flashback their relationship plays out as a rough split between their perspectives, but David is favored with dips into subjective sound and the framing of Sanford's bloodless behavior. When their marriage devolves into a cut-rate Kubrick climax (albeit with sawing Polanski strings), the film veers out of control as if in some cinematic version of Stockholm syndrome.
Katie and David both disappear but only the latter resurfaces, almost two decades later, in Texas. It's this final leap -- away from the aftermath of Katie's murder and toward a randomly cross-dressed and near-catatonic version of her (let's face it) murderer -- that the film can't survive. David makes fast friends with his building's one-man neighborhood watch (Philip Baker Hall) and fends off calls from a friend threatening to tell all. Soon comes news that a sassy district attorney (Diane Venora) has decided to re-open the investigation into Katie's disappearance, with a focus on you-know-who.
The New York press made hay of that and the even more outrageous developments to come back in 2001, but instead of Durst's stint as a fugitive and eventual arrest for boosting a chicken sandwich and a Band-Aid at a Pennsylvania Wegman's, we get portentous cross-cutting between a human execution and that of a housefly. I repeat: A chicken sandwich and a Band-Aid. Somewhere within the ballad of Robert Durst lies the potential for an indelible story and a ripping film, whether straight or black, empathetic or indicting. But "David Marks" is not the man to tell it, and neither, it would seem, is Andrew Jarecki.