Directed By: Andrew Jarecki
Written By: Marcus Hinchey, Marc Smerling
Produced By: Andrew Jarecki, Michael London, Bruna Papandrea, Marc Smerling
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kirsten Dunst, Frank Langella, Lily Rabe, Kristen Wiig, Philip Baker Hall
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 100 minutes
Release Date: December 10, 2010
Review Date: December 25, 2010
Likely anticipating the mounting frustration of the audience, Katie Marks (née McCarthy) wails, “I’ve never been closer to anyone, and I don’t know you at all!” Not all films have the prescience to announce their problems in the same way they announce expository information, so I guess that’s one good thing about All Good Things.
Unfolding like a docudrama that really wishes it could be some sort of horror-thriller-character study, the film opens in 1973, with the first meeting of Katie (Kirsten Dunst) and David Marks (Ryan Gosling). She’s renting an apartment on 53rd Street; his father owns the building, and he’s become the unofficial landlord and handyman. While dressed in a tux, he crawls under her sink and attempts to fix it. Then, he invites her to the swanky soirée at father Sanford Marks’s (Frank Langella) Scarsdale estate. A whirlwind romance follows, and before we know it, they’re married and running a hippie health-food store (called “All Good Things,” an irony the film beats to death) in Rutland, Vermont.
David has a dark secret, though, which the film telegraphs in the form of a lazy courtroom framing device. An older David narrates his story in the form of answers to questions on the witness stand (the questioner, never seen in the film, is the voice of the inimitable John Cullum, veteran stage actor and one of the many colorful actors on Northern Exposure). As David tells it, he fell in love with Katie because, as a bright-eyed 19-year-old, she believed everything he did was the greatest. As she got older, got into medical school, and became a cocaine addict, David started to lose his luster in her eyes.
Although Sanford owns “half of Times Square” and has a cold, austere office building that radiates wealth, he operates like something of a Mafia kingpin, sending David to collect mysterious cash payments under the table. When Katie decides she wants a divorce, she learns she’ll get nothing from him. In a typical move, the Marks family has set up a series of trusts that David can legally draw money from, but the money isn’t technically his, meaning Katie’s not entitled to any of it. She decides to expose the Marks family’s shady dealings, and although she fails (sending her evidence to Patrick Moynihan, a family friend who laughingly ignores it), David kills her, anyway. Not strictly because of what she’s done, but because… Well…
It’s not entirely clear. It seems as if they’ve fallen out of love with one another, which David can’t tolerate, but writers Marcus Hinchey and Marc Smerling toss in a lot of Freudian gobbledegook implying that David killed Katie because he “had” to, because it would make Sanford proud, or perhaps because Sanford ordered the hit himself, or perhaps because he was emotionally reenacting the suicide of his own mother, which he had the misfortune of witnessing as a child. The film is deliberately ambiguous, and virtually the only thing it will commit to is that David did, indeed, kill Katie.
After this action, the film loses momentum at an exponential rate, attempting to tie two later murders together with a nonsensical bow. That’s when it stops being a dramatic story and becomes a full-bore docudrama, showing the broad strokes of David’s life from 1982 through 2003 (when he’s on trial for one of the two later murders), assigning a pop-psychology explanation for his odd habit of cross-dressing (after killing Katie, he no longer wanted to be David Marks; his moving to Galveston, Texas, and manufacturing a different identity and gender couldn’t possibly have anything to do with his being wanted for questioning in relation to Katie’s disappearance).
Why would the story take such an odd direction? Why, because it’s a fictionalized telling of actual events. The facts come from the true story of Robert Durst, son of New York real estate mogul Seymour Durst, whose first wife did disappear, whose best friend (crime novelist Susan Berman, daughter of Bugsy Siegel’s lieutenant) did get killed under mysterious circumstances, whose elderly neighbor/friend he killed, dismembered, and tossed into Galveston Bay. Police could never prove his involvement in the first two deaths, but he did stand trial for the neighbor’s murder. He was acquitted, proving successfully that it was an act of self-defense, though he was imprisoned for various acts of criminal negligence.
Like too many works of speculative “true crime” fiction, All Good Things focuses far too much on the questions of what and how, and virtually none on the why. Aside from its abuse of obvious pop-psychology tropes and truly bizarre leaps in logic by way of explanation, the film spends very little time or effort trying to demonstrate what really makes David tick. Rob Simonsen’s pounding, Herrmann-esque score tries to turn his misdeeds into acts of horrific suspense, but director Andrew Jarecki undermines the attempted suspense with deliberately fuzzy storytelling.
Showing his documentarian roots (he’s most well-known for directing Capturing the Friedmans), Jarecki’s film presents fact after on-the-nose fact, speculation after baffling speculation, but he never commits to making any actual statements on who David is, or why he did what he did. Especially in light of third-act revelations, it’s very hard to believe the real-life story played out the way it did. Even if there’s truth to it, it’s impossible to understand why it played out that way.
The usually reliable Ryan Gosling seems to sleepwalk through this role. Perhaps that was an intentional choice (the film makes a huge deal out of David’s marijuana addiction, and that drug is not known for making its users peppy go-getters), but it’s certainly not an interesting one. What is an interesting choice, albeit a laughably misguided one, is Gosling’s decision to speak like a marble-mouthed Bensonhurst street hood. David developing that accent makes very little sense considering his cloistered upstate childhood of privilege and wealth, and although there might be some sort of off-kilter explanation (like David wanting to adopt the accent to deny his wealth), the film fails to provide it, just as it fails to provide anything but the basic facts of what he did in his life, without delving past the surface of why.
On the plus side, the cast is rounded out with solid performances from Langella and especially Dunst, who manages to develop a fully realized character despite the lack of material on the page. The supporting cast is fine with the notable exception of Lily Rabe (playing the Berman surrogate), who seems to be channeling Blair Brown by way of Ethel Merman. It’s a haughty, theatrical performance that belongs in a different movie.
Overall, All Good Things tells an interesting, fact-based story in an uninteresting, eyebrow-popping way. Spurious conclusions about an unsolved case, an iffy lead performance, and ambiguous storytelling work together to sink what could have been a halfway decent film. It’s a shame, too, because this film isn’t even worth seeing for Dunst’s top-notch performance.
D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.