"The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst," which premieres Sunday on HBO, is a seductive six-part series about a murder, maybe two murders, maybe three.
It is not the first true-crime documentary to be presented at such length — there was Jean-Xavier de Lestrade's eight-hour "The Staircase" on Sundance in 2004 and, minus the pictures, the recent public-radio series and minor national obsession "Serial." But, notwithstanding the expense, it's surprising, really, how few the other examples there are, given how well the content fits the form.
I should say now that, although its particulars are a matter of public record, it is helpful in watching "The Jinx" to know as little as possible about Durst — the son of a billionaire New York developer, the husband of a woman missing since 1982, just to start — in order to let its strangeness breathe and its cleverly ordered revelations to have their full effect. Nevertheless, I am going to tell you some things about it.
Director Andrew Jarecki — best known for the 2003, Oscar-nominated "Capturing the Friedmans," about a Long Island father and son convicted, controversially, of child molestation — has visited this material before. His 2010 theatrical feature, "All Good Things," tells Durst's story with names changed; Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst play Durst and first wife, Kathie, believed by some to have been murdered by Durst but whose body has never been found.
"The Jinx" gives Jarecki (collaborating again with writer-photographer Marc Smerling) a second swing at a story he didn't tell very well the first time. Notwithstanding a cast that also includes Nick Offerman, Kristen Wiig and Frank Langella, "All Good Things" comes off as something of a high-toned Lifetime movie, psychologically simple and conventionally constructed, a mostly chronological progression from good to weird to bad to worst. The new series, which starts in 2001 with the discovery of a headless, limbless torso floating in Galveston Bay and works backward and forward from there, is a puzzle box that gives up its secrets slowly and unpredictably.
That the participants represent themselves is an advantage, people being complicated in life in ways they rarely are on the page, impenetrably or revealing who they are, and not a writer's or actor's theory of who they might be. And there are a lot of them — police detectives, lawyers, family members, friends, reporters.
Each is to some degree an unreliable narrator, being only human, but each also brings the authority of experience to some part of what might constitute the truth. It's in the space and the tension between their accounts that "The Jinx" comes alive.
Like "Capturing the Friedmans," which relied heavily on a trove of Friedman home movies, "The Jinx" exists by virtue of access: The actual Robert Durst liked "All Good Things" enough to call the director and offer to talk. And where, in the first film, Jarecki shows Durst as guilty of everything of which he was accused and some things of which he was not, he is more circumspect here — willing, in the two hours I've seen, to let the scale tip this way and that.
Durst himself appears forthcoming and untrustworthy by turns, like an awkward uncle with a secret history in black ops. When he tells Jarecki, "I am complicit in Kathie's not being here," he might be saying something, or nothing at all.
We like mystery stories for the certainty and closure they customarily offer. The detective summons the suspects and sorts the clues; the red herrings are cleared from the table; we get definite answers to mercurial questions; guilty parties are removed scowling from the scene by officers standing by.
On the page or on the screen, they are as a rule as regular and reassuring as any children's book or situation comedy. But sometimes in this modern world the mystery wins out over the solution, and all you're left with is an investigation into the nature of investigation.
Although Jarecki has said that by the end of the six hours audiences "will know what happened," it's possible that, barring a confession, you will come to the end of "The Jinx" unsatisfied, wondering how it was you spent six unreclaimable hours in the company of a person you have decided is a creep. Either way, it's fascinating as it gets there.
'The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst'
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)