All Good Things. 2010. Directed by Andrew Jarecki. Screenplay by Marcus Hinchey & Marc Smerling.
Starring Ryan Gosling, Kirsten Dunst, Frank Langella, Philip Baker Hall, Lily Rabe, Michael Esper, Diane Venora, Nick Offerman, Kristen Wiig, Stephen Kunken, John Cullum, & Maggie Kiley.
Magnolia Pctures / Groundswell / Alliance Films
Rated 18A. 103 minutes.
Crime / Drama / Mystery
By now, many people have seen HBO’s series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, directed by Andrew Jarecki. Before that, he did this fictional retelling of the events which frame most of the later documentary series. While the names are changed to slightly distance itself from the actual notorious missing persons case involving Robert Durst’s wife Kathleen McCormack, Jarecki sticks close to home. Above anything, All Good Things is an up close and personal adaptation of a true crime story spanning several decades.
Centring in on the fictional version of Durst – here named David Marks, played by Ryan Gosling – this film examines the life of a man whose entire identity is a construct, one that shifts and changes depending on the situation, one that it a mask and also a plea, to be like everyone else, to find unity. At the bottom of it all, Marks – Durst – whoever he wants to be in real life – that person is lonely. He is empty. But the problem with him, as Jarecki shows us through the screenplay from Marcus Hinchey and Marc Smerling, that everything seems wonderful at first because Marks plays the part he’s required to play. Then when the disguise gives way and the mask falls off a whole other terrifying reality lies directly behind it.
So the obvious origin of the title is the health food store David and Katie own together. And it was the last episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but that’s besides the point. It also obviously refers to the common phrase “all good things must come to an end”, which holds particular significance in regards to the film’s subject and themes. In the beginning, David is all those good things. He and Katie had such a whirlwind romance. It’s really the ultimate romantic movie hookup, as they meet on a whim when David’s forced to go out and look after her leaky faucet, all the while wearing a tux on the way to a party with his father and some big shots. They seemed such kindred spirits. Then they head off out to the countryside and run a health food store together— so sweet, so American Dreamy.
After the possibility of children comes up when they get married, all those good things they come to an end. Rather abruptly. From that moment on it’s a veritable free fall descent into a tortured marriage between David and Katie. One thing, then the next. David’s mask slips further with each desperate, strange act. Until it’s as if there never were any good things, and even those good things could never ever be enough to in any way erase the things which came after them.
You can see the manipulative nature of David come out most evident when Katie receives her acceptance letter to medical school. As she comes in and happily reads her (already opened) mail, David proceeds to go out, jump in a cold fall lake and swim to get a little boat he apparently doesn’t want stolen. Except it is a cry for attention, to take it off her, as he feels wounded by not knowing she’d applied in the first place. Further than that it’s his narcissistic personality emerging more than ever. His freezing cold, almost naked body now takes precedence over her big happy moment. A brief yet sad, telling scene. And things only get worse from there. The good things, they slip away further, and his dangerous side presents itself. Right out in the open, too. Right in front of her family. So the scary part is: what would he do behind closed doors? And that sets the stage for the possibilities swirling around the mystery of Katie’s disappearance later on.
More manipulation is clear in the relationship between Malvern and David. As we get the present David telling a lawyer/the court about Malvern being too clingy and awkward, we’re also intermittently shown cuts of the two of them house shopping: here we see David directly oppose what he says on the stand. So really, everybody near David is manipulated, whether friend, lawyer, courtrooms, whomever it may be; this is a true con artist.
If we look again at the phrase “all good things must come to an end” then there appears a tragic trend along the timeline of David Marks’ life. Because it appears good people meet their end when wrapped up with David. Not to say his possible accomplice in the disappearance of his wife was a good woman, nor was Malvern either. But there’s no telling how these people would have went through life had David not influenced them in some way, shape, or form. Anybody that walks about life leaving a trail of bodies like David is inherently suspicious as an influential figure.
Something I enjoy a lot about All Good Things is the shifting, twisty narrative. Bits of the present are weaved in through pieces of the past, and just like the life of David Marks (a.k.a Robert Durst) the past is never far behind; like William Faulkner, it isn’t even past. So part of the narrative structure overall speaks to that very theme in the life of its main character, the true life figure they’re fictionally dissecting here onscreen. Not only that there is a solid ambiguity which strings on long after the film ends. Of course in real life there have been a couple answers, or likely answers, since The Jinx aired.
Yet the disappearance of Katie Marks (a.k.a Kathleen McCormack) is still draped in mystery. This movie provides some possible explanations. However, nothing is concrete, not a thing is for certain. And though this is an aspect that might divide others, causing them to label the film as unfair in its ambiguity. For me, it’s perfectly so. In real life the answers are never easy, certainly not in a case like this debacle (in every sense of the word). Therefore, Jarecki and the writers give us no definitive, final answers to the questions surrounding this true crime. Rather it’s all about the atmosphere, the emotional perspectives, the heaviness of everything.
In that way All Good Things is impressive. Jarecki is a good director, whose talents were evident before this in his (admittedly problematic) documentary Capturing the Friedmans. Here, he directs the story well and conjures up a mysterious, tense mood like something out of memories; it’s like we’re looking into the past through the lens of someone’s memory or their dreams. The look is impeccable, alongside some fascinating makeup work for the 2000s scenes. On top of that, the score from composer Rob Simonsen (Foxcatcher, 500 Days of Summer) is so god damn beautiful. The very noticeable string pieces are rich and gorgeous sounding, at the same time they’ve got an ominous sort of tone to them that resonates with the plot. Also it helps with the pacing, as these portions of the score almost make things feel like they’re clipping along solidly. The music and the visuals match up quite well to achieve this movie’s wholly engaging atmosphere.
The writing and directing, all the technical aspects line up together. Yet in addition there’s so much talent in the cast. Along the edges there’s Philip Baker Hall, always enjoyable and always interesting to see as the various characters he inhabits. His portrayal of Malvern Bump (a.k.a Morris Black) is infectious, in the sense he grows on you similar to how he does David, but all the same we’re also able to see how he is perhaps a bit too closely attached; though not always his own fault. His tragic qualities are brought out by Hall in a subtly intense performance. Also, the ever awesome Frank Langella plays Sanford Marks (a.k.a Seymour Durst). Only a supporting role, Langella makes this father figure a looming one in David’s life, and one whose identity casts too deep and long a shadow for David to want to live up to it whatsoever. He is truly menacing at times and a hateful, sad man, which Langella portrays so well.
Dunst and Gosling are the shining stars. No doubt. With Dunst we get a spectacular performance in her role as a woman that figures out all good things are coming to their end, and fast. But a woman who is nearly powerless to stop it, then winds up with a far worse fate than she’d ever imagined. Dunst’s emotional resonance is always apparent as an actor, but almost never more so than in this role. She is powerful, strong, and even as a victim does not feel utterly lacking hope. Parallel to her is Gosling, and he knocks the role of David Marks out of the park. Some say he’s the same in every movie, I don’t agree. He just isn’t a loud, brash actor. Instead he gives an understated performance. He never allows us a full view into David, similar to how the real Durst is quite the shifty, manipulative character. Gosling keeps Marks as a quiet and subdued type, whose scary personal side only erupts in the most controlled environments. And when those moments happen they are intense, sometimes horrifying. Together, Dunst and Gosling elevate this whole story with their emotional acting.
Honestly, this is a favourite of mine since the 2010s broke. Andrew Jarecki does a lot of good stuff in terms of directorial choices here, which are only further aided by the solid cast, the moving score, and the screenplay’s interesting structure. Definitely check this out, especially if you’re at all interested in The Jinx or Robert Durst in general. Absolutely worth investing the time; an atmospheric, well acted piece of true crime fictionalized.