All good things are not what they seem

Director Andrew Jarecki’s 2010 film “All Good Things” treads a thin line between fact and fiction. This story, built around allegation and insinuation, weaves a fascinating and disturbing tale about love, privilege, mental disorder, abuse and murder in a true-crime mystery that spans nearly three decades. By CARIEN ELS.

A film that has largely flown below the radar, “All Good Things” is a fictionalised account of the mysterious disappearance of a young New Yorker, Kathleen Durst, and the baffling series of events that followed. The story centres on an initially happy couple, Kathleen and Robert Durst, and follows them through the gradual deterioration of their marriage into a deeply unhappy relationship, rife with emotional and physical abuse, culminating in Kathleen’s disappearance in 1982. To this day no trace of her has been found, dead or alive.

The film straddles a rather uncomfortable divide between true crime and fiction, especially as Robert Durst has not been convicted of any of the crimes the film implies. To avoid the virtually inevitable defamation charges, director Andrew Jarecki tactfully changes the names of his characters. Robert Durst becomes David Marks (played by Ryan Gosling). Kirsten Dunst plays Katherine McCarthy, representing Kathleen McCormack, Durst’s former wife.

Dunst is excellent as McCormack/McCarthy and shows a depth of acting that hasn’t been present in many (if any) of her previous films. She gradually deteriorates from a sunny, cheerful character into a cracked and fearful shadow of her former self, masterfully conveying the confusion of a wife who watches her husband unravel into someone she does not know. Similarly, Ryan Gosling as Marks/Durst starts the film as a likeable, if shy, character that only gives the subtlest of cues to indicate the troubled character it eventually becomes clear he is. The eerie collapse of his character into something resembling a monster is both unnerving and brilliant.

The tragic tale of a love story gone wrong and the best part of the film may have ended with the disappearance of Kathleen Hurst, but the weirdness of the real-life story was only just beginning.

Following the adage that fact is stranger than fiction, this simultaneously fascinating and horrifying film gives a mere taste of the bizarreness of the events surrounding the life of the man on which it is based, the heir apparent to the Durst Organisation’s real estate empire, Robert Durst.

Born in 1943, Robert Durst claims when he was seven years old he watched his mother fling herself from the roof of their Scarsdale family mansion. Though psychologists attributed a range of possible mental disorders to this event, his younger brother Douglas denies this ever happened. The film depicts Robert, or “Bobby”, as being averse to entering the family business, much to his father’s chagrin. When he meets and falls in love with middle-class Kathleen McCormack, Bobby finally seems to find the escape he needs from a life he is determined to avoid at all costs.

From all accounts, Durst and McCormack were the epitome of young love. Kathy, only 18 when she met Robert, was a beautiful, vibrant blonde who seemed indifferent to Robert’s social standing or background, something for which he seemed to be profoundly grateful. Soon after the two were wed in 1973, they headed to Vermont to open a health-food store called All Good Things, and settled into building a simple life far from the New York city business hubbub Robert’s father expected him to enter.

The pair’s blissful existence is rudely interrupted when Robert’s father, Seymour Durst appears on the scene and pressures Robert to join the family business. He submits, and the couple return to New York.

The Durst’s initial months spent back in New York appeared to be happy. Kathleen became acquainted with some of Robert’s friends, most notably Susan Berman, Robert’s long-time confidante and closest friend. Little did they know what similarly tragic fates they would suffer. The trouble is purported to have started when Kathy, quickly bored of the aimless New York high society living, told Robert that she wanted children. His reaction was uncharacteristically violent; he was vehemently opposed to the idea. It appears the cracks in their relationship started to show around this time, and friends and neighbours became aware of the fact that Robert had starting beating his wife in violent fits of rage. Kathy fell pregnant in the mid-1970s and was devastated when Robert forced her to have an abortion. Deprived of the family she so desperately desired and feeling increasingly purposeless, Kathy enrolled herself in a nursing school near their lakeside home in South Salem, and moved there by herself to attend classes.

Increasingly wary of her husband, Robert and Kathy spent much of their time in separate apartments when she went home to Manhattan. After graduating from nursing school, Kathy was accepted into the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, and moved back to New York. As his once-adoring wife became increasingly independent and estranged from him, Robert seemed all the more desperate to maintain some semblance of control over her. When they were together, their fights quickly escalated into violence.

By 1981, Kathy had had enough of Robert’s abusive behaviour and approached a lawyer to prepare to file for divorce. Robert immediately reacted by threatening to cut off all funds to her – a devastating blow as this meant she would no longer be able to afford tuition for medical school. Kathy, defeated by the years of abuse, chose to continue with her studies, and avoided Robert as much as possible.

Kathleen Durst was having dinner with friends in Connecticut on the evening of 31 January 1982 when Robert phoned the house incessantly, begging her to come to him at their lakeside home. They fought, but she eventually went to see him nonetheless. Before leaving she told her friends she was worried what Robert might do to her. They never saw her again.

On 4 February 1982, Robert Durst reported his wife missing. Robert claimed he hadn’t seen her since the evening of the 31 January when he had dropped her off at the train station in South Salem to go back to Manhattan. A doorman at Kathy’s apartment building said he’d seen her the following morning. Because she was last reported seen in Manhattan, all investigations centred on the city and the Durst’s lakeside home was never searched. Now, almost 30 years later, investigators believe that Kathy Durst never left South Salem.

A missing person’s case was opened, but no trace of Kathy was ever found. Robert was questioned in connection with the disappearance of his wife, but never arrested.

Durst’s behaviour was puzzling. He only noticed his wife was missing four days after she was last seen and police claim that despite posting a $100,000 reward note for Kathy, he didn’t make an effort to push investigators in their search for his missing wife. Within a few weeks of her disappearance, he was seen disposing of Kathy’s belongings. Despite the fact that his abuse of his wife was well-known, police never considered Robert a serious suspect. Reports give no indication why. After his wife’s disappearance, Robert became increasingly reclusive. Unbeknownst to Kathy’s friends and family, he divorced her in 1990.

In 2000, New York district attorney Jeanine Pirro reopened the Kathy Durst case. Robert’s close friend Susan Berman joined this decades-long investigation soon after the case was reopened. Police were planning to question Berman on Durst when the news reached them that she had been shot, execution-style, in her home in California. There was no sign of forced entry – police assumed she had known her attacker well. The daughter of a deceased mobster with a penchant for writing about her father’s associates’ exploits, the police concluded Berman was a victim of a mob murder. Despite speculations that Berman might have been murdered to keep her quiet about what she knew of the Kathy Durst case, once again Robert was questioned, but never charged.

On 30 September 2001 a 13-year-old boy spotted black rubbish bags floating in Galveston Bay, Texas while out fishing with his father. Upon inspection they made a gruesome discovery: the black bags were filled with the dismembered torso of an elderly man,  Morris Black. The police investigation led them back to a room in an apartment house in Galveston, rented by a mute woman named Dorothy Ciner. The hallway and floor of Ciner’s apartment was covered in blood, a bloodied knife was lying inside the apartment. Morris Black had been Ciner’s neighbour, and Ciner, it was soon discovered, was in fact a bewigged, dress-clad Robert Durst.

It emerged that soon after the New York DA had reopened Kathy’s missing person’s case, Robert had fled New York to Galveston, disguising himself as Dorothy Ciner, reportedly to avoid the media flurry he was sure would follow the investigation. After the discovery of Black’s blood in his home, Durst was subsequently arrested, released on bail, and scheduled to appear in court on the 16 October 2001.

Robert Durst, however, had no intention of appearing in court, and instead led police on a 45-day nationwide man-hunt. Becoming an increasingly bizarre character with every turn he took, Durst was eventually caught in a Pennsylvania supermarket for shoplifting a pack of Band-Aids and a chicken sandwich – despite the fact that he had almost $500 in his pocket. Upon his capture, police searched his rental car to find two guns, $37,000 in cash, marijuana and Black’s driver’s license.

In 2003, Robert Durst went on trial for the murder of Morris Black. Despite admitting to having hacked Black’s body to pieces with a paring knife, two saws and an axe and dumping the pieces in Galveston Bay, Durst pleaded self-defence. The jury acquitted him of murder on the basis that there was not enough proof indicating that this in fact was not an act of self-defence.

He did, however, spend a few months in jail for bond jumping and evidence tampering, before he was released on parole in 2005. In 2006 he was rearrested for violating his parole conditions by visiting the house in which he had killed Morris Black, but was released from custody about four months later.

Today Robert Durst is a free man and lives in Houston, Texas. DM

As expected, the Durst Corporation announced its intention to sue the filmmakers for defamation. Though not, as you’d think, for insinuating that one of their stable was involved in a triple homicide. Not so. They raised no objection to the film’s portrayal of Robert as a brutal murderer, but took issue with the film’s portrayal of the Durst Corporation as taking part in dirty real estate deals. The Durst Organisation and the family broke all ties with Robert in 1994. A 2010 New York Times review of the film quoted Durst in a telephonic interview that he “actually liked the movie”.
The 2011 Blu-Ray DVD release of the film includes audio commentary by Durst himself, in which he concedes the film is the most accurate portrayal of his relationship with Kathy to date. Feel free to draw your own conclusions from all of this.

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