December 31, 2011

All Good Things (2010)

A light is shed on a missing persons story in All Good Things

In All Good Things, the 1% literally get away with murder. Based on the true story of Robert Durst, the son of a New York real estate tycoon whose wife went missing, the film alleges that she was actually murdered -- perhaps by him. This is director Andrew Jarecki’s first attempt at a feature film (his previous work was the documentary Capturing the Friedmans, which focused on an even more uncomfortable topic). While it would seem somewhat facile to attribute the shortcomings of this film to his background as a documentary filmmaker, how else can we explain his interest in biographical detail and his refusal to tell the audience what to think? 

The film begins in a courtroom, where David Marks (Ryan Gosling) is on trial for a murder perhaps connected to his wife Katie’s disappearance 20 years ago. (The film avoids using the true names of the people they are based on.) We then flash back to New York City, 1971, when Katie (Kirsten Dunst) and David first meet.  He is running around town doing business in seedy buildings on orders from his dad (Frank Langella, as unpleasant as you would expect); she is an aspiring med student from a working-class family who has just moved into one of said buildings. Interspersed with the courtroom interrogation, we track their quickie wedding, their stint in Vermont as owners of a health-food store, and David’s summon back to New York, where he reluctantly joins the family business. 

Dad (Frank Langella) is unhappy with their marriage. This is one of the few instances in the film where the two are in the same shot together.

Jarecki takes you step by step through the demise of David and Katie, but holds viewers at bay when it comes to presenting a clear point of view on her disappearance. We see how David’s background shaped her fate: haunted by his mother’s suicide, which he witnessed as a child, on rocky terms with his powerful, controlling dad (who is naturally opposed to their marriage), and with a history of mental illness. However, when it comes to Katie's disappearance, Jarecki drops hints and suggestions about her murder while leaving the full details somewhat vague. Instead of coalescing all the information he's presented so far into a clear explanation, he instead turns tentative, leaving the film feeling like a working theory rather than a dramatization.

Who are you kidding? David tries to pass himself off as a woman.

This causes problems for the actors, in particular Ryan Gosling. As the troubled David, Gosling is so remote that you can hardly believe that he is the central character. Dull and sluggish, David doesn't seem charming enough to be able to ensnare Katie in their first encounter, and we don't see how he would be invested in whether she divorced him or not, whether she lived or not. By the time David shows up in the last third of the film and living in Texas as a woman, you've understood so little about him that it's difficult to even be fazed. 

A hard-eyed and disillusioned Katie.

Dunst fares better as the long-suffering Katie. Playing an average girl who marries up, way up, she goes for broke, subverting her initial blonde sunniness to gradually shift into a dead-eyed hollow of a girl. (No vain actress would let herself appear so haggard for so much of her screen time.) Forced to have an abortion, physically abused, and unable to escape from her marriage, it's the most uncompromisingly dark role she's had in her career so far, and she is compelling throughout the film. (Melancholia does not come out in Japan until February.) As the only penetrable character, her disappearance two-thirds into the film leaves you mourning.

A shot from the "happy times" montage, shot through the requisite golden glow.

The film’s last third is a limp to the end as it catches up to the present-day courtroom scene. It's then we see for certain that all the pieces Jarecki has been assembling so far aren't going to come together; the flashbacks merely build towards a whimper of a revelation. It fits with Jarecki's neutral stance: he isn't out to punish David, or provide him with a catharsis. This refusal to draw conclusions for the audience would have been a smart tactic if he didn't leave so much in the dark, leaving viewers at a loss as to how they should feel, or care. In the postscript, we learn the outcome of the trial, along with the information that David is now working as a real estate investor in Florida. You get chills, almost in spite of the film.

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