Robert Durst: A True Crime Bad Guy

Curator's Note

Two moments in HBO’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (2015) caused a collective uproar on social media. One of those moments occurred in the fourth episode when Robert Durst, the subject of the six-part series, rehearses a lie, oblivious to the fact that his mic is still on: “I did not knowingly, purposefully, intentionally lie” (featured in the clip). The other moment occurs in the final episode when Durst, again unaware that his mic is still on, mutters: “What did I do? I killed them all of course.” I have been interested in exploring why these particular moments operate as such effective storytelling devices. I believe they are so effective because The Jinx draws from documentary and melodramatic conventions in order to exploit audience’s fascination with complicated male protagonists. Documentary talking heads have traditionally signified authority and authenticity. Though viewers are poised to accept the truthfulness of talking heads, true crime documentaries tend to position accused criminals alongside experts, piquing viewers’ suspicion of their testimony. This, coupled with the fact that melodrama has taught viewers to read bodies, faces, and voices in order to assess moral legibility, primes viewers to look at bodies and listen to voices to assess culpability (Brooks 8). Like many other true crime texts, The Jinx uses these conventions in order to offer viewers pleasures similar to those offered by popular contemporary male antihero dramas like The Sopranos (1999-2007) and Breaking Bad (2008-2013). Series such as these invite viewers into the psyche of their complicated male protagonists and ask them to look at and listen to these men in order to determine their moral legibility (Lotz 5). The series often frame their bad boys in close up as they deliver monologues and discuss their motivations. Consider, for example, how much narrative time The Sopranos spends with Tony in his therapy sessions. Similar to The Sopranos, The Jinx spends much time featuring Durst in close up as he mumbles, blinks, and burps. In doing so, it asks viewers to look at nonverbal gestures and listen to involuntary utterances for clues to his morality. When spontaneous confessions seem to burst forth, this bad boy’s villainy, like that of Tony Soprano or Walter White, is confirmed. Interest in these confirmations underscores one of the things that viewers find so enthralling about true crime: the promise that, if one watches long enough and listens hard enough, one can determine guilt or innocence. When he proceeds to admit to the crimes, then, viewers are rewarded for their effort.

Brooks, Peter. The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess. Yale UP, 1995.

Lotz, Amanda. Cable Guys: Television and Masculinities in the 21st Century. NYU P, 2014.

Comments

Leslie Rowen's picture

I think the point you make

I think the point you make about true crime documentary talking heads is very interesting, Staci. In contrast with straight documentaries, the true crime doc enters itself as evidence—Durst’s bizarre behavior in The Jinx becomes his testimony, and it is up to the jury (us viewers) to determine his guilt or innocence. Though viewers are of course allowed their own opinions, I feel the case put forth by Andrew Jarecki in The Jinx is pretty damning. In the case of documentaries like The Staircase or the Paradise Lost series, there is less certainty, leading to much more debate about the courtroom verdicts of the cases in question.

I think it is interesting that you bring up Tony Soprano and Walter White as examples, because though they too are the focus of their respective shows, the perspective is different. Durst’s own narrative of his life is entered in contrast to the alternative telling made by Jarecki. Tony and Walter, on the other hand, have control of the story, and for this reason I think the audience feels more sympathy for these characters, even rooting for their success in their criminal endeavors. As a comparison, it made me evaluate my personal feelings about all three men, and exactly why I find Walter and Tony if not likable, interesting, whereas my feelings for Durst are entirely negative. I think the contrast between major figures of true crime with major figures of crime fiction is worth further study, and I’d wager that fictionalizing crime removes a lot of the stigma related to enjoying crime entertainment, making it more acceptable to “root for the bad guys.”

Staci Stutsman's picture

"enjoying" crime entertainment

Thanks for your reply! I’m especially interested in your last remarks—those around the stigma related to enjoying crime entertainment. It’s exactly that sort of enjoyment that I want to unpack. When I teach true crime in my courses, we always talk about how “grimy” it feels to enjoy these crime narratives so much. Despite that griminess (and the stigma), people love to watch true crime. Whether or not they “like” or feel “sympathetic” toward the true crime bad guys, the process of watching is enjoyable. It’s that pleasure that I want to explore by putting true crime in conversation with antihero dramas. Regardless of whether or not the perpetrator/villain’s guilt is definitive, people still love their stories. I don’t think that enjoyment is contingent on innocence. In some ways, I feel like antihero dramas (and their related discourse of ‘quality’) are creating a situation in which it is okay to “root for the bad guys.” This condonation seems to extend to true crime stories when they, too, are couched within discourses of quality.

George S. Larke-Walsh's picture

Fictionalizing crime and the stigma of true crime

I was very interested in your final point too, Leslie. Fictionalizing crime does seem to remove the stigma of true crime and allows viewers to root for the bad guys. Staci, I agree that there is a ‘guilty pleasure’ aspect of watching/enjoying true crime narratives. It seems to be connected to the moral dilemmas of making someone’s private life public - even when they are guilty. We are violating that right to privacy and the viewer becomes an onlooker. In reality we probably wouldn’t want to be seen hanging around a crime scene for a peek at the evidence, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t fascinated about what may be going on there. The general fascination with the macabre is a strong influence on the enjoyment of true crime in my opinion. True crime media allows us to be onlookers without being openly labeled as such!

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