"What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course."
Robert Durst's bizarre bathroom monologue wasn't a confession in the traditional sense, but it's hard to imagine how, short of a tearful on-camera apology, "The Jinx," HBO's six-part documentary series about wayward real estate scion and arrested murder suspect, could have ended in more dramatic -- or more satisfying -- fashion.
Now, we all knew something big was coming. In a bit of publicity so perfectly timed it almost makes you wonder if HBO had the LAPD on retainer, news broke Sunday morning that Durst had been arrested in New Orleans in connection with the 2000 slaying of Los Angeles writer Susan Berman.
But did any of us really expect Durst to hear him on a hot microphone mumbling possibly incriminating things to himself -- for the second time so far in this series? Probably not, but perhaps we should have.
From the very first episode of "The Jinx," Durst has evinced what seems to be a self-destructive level of candor, admitting to suspicious behavior (e.g. lying about his actions on the night his first wife, Kathie Durst, went missing in 1982) and even describing himself as "complicit" in her disappearance, all the while maintaining his innocence. His openness almost seemed like reverse psychology: Surely, he wouldn't admit to lying about his wife's whereabouts if he'd actually killed her. Only a crazy person would do that! Even the misspelling of "Beverley," a word your average fifth-grader could spell accurately, seems like a mistake designed to tempt fate.
As we learned last week, there were similarities between an envelope from a 1999 letter Durst sent to Berman, a crime writer, and an anonymous note sent to Beverly Hills police at the time of the December 2000 killing alerting them they would find "a cadaver" in Berman's house. Both were written in distinctive block handwriting. And in both the writer made the same mistake, misspelling the word "Beverley."
Not to diminish it in any way, but much of the 40-minute episode plays like a high-stakes finale of "The Bachelor," in the sense that it's filled with dramatic recaps of information we already know (the envelopes seem to match, right down to the "Beverley" misspelling) and anticipation over a fateful showdown (Jarecki's elusive second interview with Durst).
But what a thrilling ride it is. In a prelude, the filmmakers show the 1999 Durst letter to some of the major players in the case. Durst's Texas attorney Chip Lewis equivocates in the most lawyerly way imaginable ("I see similarities and I see differences"), while former Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro speaks for us all when she issues a stunned, "Oh, Jesus."
A forensic document expert is enlisted to review handwriting samples from papers gathered by director Andrew Jarecki and his team of producers -- including a lease application on which Durst lists his occupation as "chief botanist." Comparing them to the "cadaver note," the expert concludes, "These particular characteristics are unique to one person and only one person."
This prompts some soul-searching from Jarecki, who has to keep the subject in his good graces long enough to secure a follow-up interview. (Paging Janet Malcolm.) "I can't be any different, and yet my feelings are very different," Jarecki says. "My feelings are different not because I thought that, well, Bob is innocent, but I wasn't sure that Bob is guilty. And that's a big, big change."
Durst thoughtfully gives Jarecki plenty of time to devise a strategy, scheduling and then canceling multiple interviews and making up a story about traveling to Madrid, Spain -- or is it Barcelona? -- when in reality he's in L.A. A break comes when police arrest Durst on suspicion of trespassing at his brother Doug's New York home. Jarecki agrees to cooperate with Durst's legal team, but leverages the situation to secure the long-awaited second interview.
Jarecki and Co. painstakingly plot out their questions. They have to confront Durst in a way that minimizes the possibility for excuse-making. So Jarecki starts with "softball" questions, prompting Durst with old snapshots of him with wife Kathie (Durst seems amused by his "Viking" hairdo) and Berman (he asks Jarecki for a copy).
Then comes the moment we've been waiting for. Jarecki begins by showing Durst the 1999 letter to Berman -- which, read in hindsight, is chilling: "Now and again I think about old times. Good luck, Bobby." Durst can't remember when or why he wrote it, but doesn't deny that he did. When Jarecki whips out the envelope the letter was mailed in, it's impossible to claim it's not his handwriting.
Instead he reads the address on the envelope per Jarecki's request. He instantly notes the "Beverley" misspelling, then tries to deflect attention by noting how Berman lived in "the ZIP code you want in Beverly Hills" but the wrong neighborhood. A long, charged pause follows. Durst blinks. Jarecki then presents him with the "cadaver" note.
Rather than calling off the interview and immediately dialing his lawyer, Durst instead points out the identical misspelling.
"What does that say to you?" Jarecki asks.
"The writing looks similar and the spelling is the same, so I can see the conclusion the cops would draw," says Durst, who's suddenly more animated than we've ever seen him. He coughs, covers his face with his hands, burps and is clearly struggling to maintain his composure. Finally, he continues: "...Or the writing exemplar person would conclude they were both written by the same person."
Durst denies writing the "cadaver" note, claiming that the block lettering is no more distinctive than text from a typewriter. But Jarecki asks Durst if he can say which version of "Beverley Hills" -- both are blown up and displayed on a single piece of paper -- he wrote.
Suddenly, the interview is over, and the minute or two that follow are almost comic in their banality. Jarecki asks for help locating Durst's bag; Durst fumbles around in search of the bathroom; a producer offers to wrap up a sandwich for him to take home. (I had to wonder if it was chicken salad.)
Then a live microphone catches Durst in the bathroom, muttering to himself:
"There it is, you're caught. You're right, of course. But you can't imagine. Arrest him. I don't know what's in the house. Oh, I want this. What a disaster. He was right. I was wrong. And the burping. I'm having difficulty with the question. What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course."
Durst's oddly poetic monologue is probably more than enough to persuade most viewers that he is guilty but whether it will stand up in a court of law is another question. And it's just one of many questions left unanswered by "The Jinx," including how long Jarecki and his producers withheld this information from police, why authorities arrested Durst a day before the finale aired and -- perhaps most critically -- what is the deal with Durst's second wife?
"The Jinx" may be over, but this case certainly isn't.
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