This film is based on the life of Robert Durst, the troubled scion of a
powerful Manhattan real estate mogul. Many people feel that Durst, who is still
alive and free, has gotten away with murder several times, starting in 1982,
when his wife disappeared. To this day, Kathy Durst's case is still open, but
since no trace of her has ever been found, it is considered a missing persons
investigation rather than a homicide. What the police do know is that there had
been a pattern of escalating abuse and violence in the Durst marriage, that
Kathy was afraid of her husband, that Kathy had consulted a divorce attorney,
and that Robert Durst was known to be prone to sudden rages stemming from
deep-seeded emotional problems dating back to childhood. Those circumstances
made Durst a person of interest when Kathy disappeared, but ultimately the
police had nothing more concrete than suspicions, and Durst went on with his
Some 18 years later, Durst was connected to another murder. Susan Berman, his
close friend and college classmate, was found dead in her Los Angeles home in
2000, a single bullet having been fired into her head at close range. It was
obviously a case of homicide, but it originally seemed like some kind of
gangland slaying since Berman's dad was a famous mobster, a partner of Bugsy
Siegel and an associate of Meyer Lansky. Many people assumed that she was killed
to prevent her from revealing some mob secret in her next book. The police felt,
however, that she knew virtually nothing of her dad's criminal activities and
that certain other aspects of the case pointed to a different solution. There
was no forced entry despite the fact that Berman was an extremely paranoid woman who never let
strangers in, so her killer had to have been someone she trusted. Other elements
of the crime scene led police to believe that there was a close bond between
Berman and her killer. Three other items came to the attention of investigators:
(1) Berman had just been contacted by the NY state police about the Kathy Durst
disappearance, and had recently told a friend that she had information that was "going to
blow the top off things"; (2) Berman had just received two $25,000 checks from
Robert Durst; (3) Susan revealed to a friend that "she'd provided Bobby's
Not long after the Berman murder, when police were still trying to locate
Durst in connection with that case, the eccentric millionaire was implicated in
yet another slaying, this time in Galveston, Texas, where he was living in
disguise as a mute woman. Durst eventually admitted to having killed a
cranky old neighbor named Morris Black. During the course of that Texas investigation,
police found Durst in possession of a 9mm pistol similar to the one that killed
Susan Berman. (Ballistics tests were inconclusive.) The jury found him not
guilty of the Black murder based on his self-defense plea, but more than a few
observers were incredulous at the verdict, given that Mr Black had been brutally
beaten to death and then chopped into pieces with a hacksaw. (His head has never
been found.) During the trial for Black's murder, Robert Durst explained that he
chose his unusual body disposal technique because he was afraid nobody would
believe his story. At least 12 people did believe it. The jury could find him guilty of nothing more serious than improper tampering
with evidence (the corpse).
Although the director has previously been known as a documentarian, this film
is theoretically a fictionalization based on Durst's life, and the names of the
characters have been changed. The Durst Organization has found the film
non-fictional enough to threaten lawsuits over the portrayal of what anybody can
see is meant to be their company and their late boss, Seymour Hurst. Let's set
the bullshit aside. In an nutshell, it IS supposed to be Durst's life, disguised
only by a thin veil of false names. Durst himself has commented to
the NY Times about how accurate the film is, while still denying its
hypothetical solution to the three mysteries.
I mentioned at the beginning of this article that there would be spoilers.
Here they come. Since the first 91 minutes of the film tends to be based on real life, right down to dialogue taken from the actual court
transcripts of the Morris Black case, there's only one thing I can spoil, and
that's the film's hypothetical solution to the mysteries, which is presented
toward the end of the film in a hidden scenes montage, ala Wild Things.
As the authors see it:
- Durst ultimately had to get rid of his wife because she was threatening
him in various ways as leverage to get a divorce. His friend Susan Berman provided
with an alibi by pretending to be Kathy Durst after Kathy was actually dead,
thus throwing investigators off the scent. Perhaps Berman knew many of the details,
but she never revealed them.
- Some years later, Susan panicked when the investigation was reopened.
Durst was paying her off, and finally arranged for her to be killed when he
sensed she would crack and reveal everything she knew. The actual murderer was
Morris Black, who worked out a deal with Durst.
- Durst then killed Black to tie up the loose ends.
Some of those hypotheses are plausible, but not forced by the evidence.
actually seem to be ruled out.
A Durst/Berman collusion in Kathy's murder is plausible, since there is
nothing to refute it, but a lack of contradiction with the evidence is not
ipso facto a persuasive argument. I find the script's hypothesis in this
case to be reasonably persuasive, but not inevitable.
The theory that Morris Black killed Berman, on the other hand, doesn't seem to coincide with the facts
of the case at all. Berman seems to have been killed by someone she knew. She would
have let Durst into her place, but would have never permitted a crotchety old
stranger in. Moreover, Durst and Black lived in Galveston, Texas and Berman was
killed in Los Angeles. Durst can be
placed in California at the time of Berman's murder, but Black cannot. (Although
he was supposed to be living in Galveston, Durst flew out of the San Francisco
airport two days after Berman's murder in L.A.) There is no hard proof to
support Durst's involvement in Berman's death, but it is at least possible that
he could have done it, and the circumstantial evidence does not rule it out. On
the other hand, the theory that Black
killed Berman seems to come from left field and to fly in the face of logic.
Finally, since there's no good reason to believe that Black was involved in
the Berman slaying, there is therefore no reason to adduce that the motive for
Black's murder could be explained by such a connection. There is also no good
reason to think that Black and Durst had a deal of any kind. Why would Black
agree to kill a stranger? What would be his proportionate gain in this alleged partnership? Black lived
modestly, but actually had a $130,000 nest egg in the bank, and did not need any
financial help from Durst. The prosecutors in the Morris Black murder case believe
that the high-profile millionaire on the lam simply needed a new low-profile
identity. In the state's theory, Durst figured that nobody would consider it
noteworthy if Mr Black disappeared, because the man was an itinerant, so Durst
made him disappear and assumed his identity. That conclusion is supported by
subsequent events. I find the state's case in the Black murder far more
persuasive than the elaborate Berman/Black theory posed by the film.
Strangely, the one name the film did not change is that of Senator Daniel Patrick
Moynihan, even though the story all but blames Kathy's death on Moynihan's
callous indifference to her plight, and his willingness to ignore possible
criminal evidence on behalf of a rich constituent. Even more
strangely, the Moynihan scenes appear to be completely fictional. Some people
close to the family have said that Seymour Durst didn't even know the senator, and there seems to be no
evidence at all to support the sub-plot in which Kathy mailed the Durst family's
second set of books to Sen. Moynihan, whereupon he promptly returned them to the
ruthless Dursts, starting a chain that inevitably required Kathy to be
eliminated. In other words, the script was careful to change the names of other
people involved in real events, but seems to have slandered a respected U.S. Senator with a completely
Given that some of the film's theories seem deeply flawed, while others seem
plausible but ultimately unsupportable, it's difficult to come up with a
reason to recommend this movie. The narrative is choppy, the storyline is not
involving, and the film takes itself too seriously to be really entertaining.
It's not a pleasant film to watch because the tone is dark, Durst was a very
disturbed individual, and you don't want to spend time with any of the
characters except Kathy.
And she's colorless.
And then she's gone.
On the other hand, the film does maintain a consistent look and an ominous tone, the performances are quite effective, and some scenes are
suffused with dramatic tension. Are those sufficient reasons to watch? If so, they're about the only ones I can come up with.