Robert Durst: A True Crime Bad Guy
by Staci Stutsman — Syracuse University
February 13, 2017 – 12:53
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.