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On Movies: With HBO's 'The Jinx,' other thrillers in the true-crime film genre

The Jinx, Andrew Jarecki's six-part HBO series about perennial murder suspect Robert Durst, is not the first time the filmmaker has told this tale.

Robert Downey Jr. is a reporter and Jake Gyllenhaal an editorial cartoonist in David Fincher's "Zodiac," a masterful account of the hunt for the serial killer who called himself Zodiac.
Robert Downey Jr. is a reporter and Jake Gyllenhaal an editorial cartoonist in David Fincher's "Zodiac," a masterful account of the hunt for the serial killer who called himself Zodiac.Read more

The Jinx, Andrew Jarecki's six-part HBO series about perennial murder suspect Robert Durst, is not the first time the filmmaker has told this tale.

Subtitled The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, Jarecki's TV documentary ended last Sunday with Durst's Whoa Nelly bathroom soliloquy: "What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course." In the preceding episodes, Jarecki, like a good prosecutor, laid out the evidence linking the peripatetic millionaire, now 71, to the 2000 slaying of Susan Berman, a friend believed to have information about the 1982 disappearance of Durst's wife, Kathie. The Jinx dug into the mysteries surrounding Kathie's vanishing, Berman's subsequent death, and the killing and dismemberment of neighbor Morris Black in Galveston, Texas, in 2001. In 2004, Durst was acquitted of murder charges in the Black case.

But all the lurid details - including Durst's disguising himself as a woman, his bizarre shoplifting arrest at a Wegmans in Bethlehem, Pa. - already had been addressed, by Jarecki, in All Good Things.

Released in 2010, and starring Ryan Gosling as "David Marx," the troubled son of a Manhattan real estate magnate (just like Durst), the director's All Good Things didn't find a wide audience. Yet, it is easily one of the best so-called true-crime dramas out there. The genre has been the meat and potatoes of such shows as 48 Hours for years now, and the gravy of cable. Investigative docs such as Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's Paradise Lost trilogy, about the West Memphis Three murders in 1993, have riveted audiences, too. Justice served and justice misserved, random carnage, and premeditated murder - it's the stuff that thrills us and chills us and burrows somewhere primal in our psyches.

With the attention (and controversy, and ratings numbers) heaped on The Jinx, it's the perfect time to revisit the earlier, dramatized version of the Durst affair. Licensed to speculate, and to plumb murkier psychological depths, Jarecki was free to explore different facets of his subject's story in the names-have-been-changed account. He pushes Gosling to scary places. Kirsten Dunst is unforgettable as "Katie," the sunny Long Island premed student who goes to Vermont to open a health-food store with her beau - then disappears forever. (In real life, Durst's wife, Kathie, was a dental hygienist.) Jarecki's creepily evocative take on the Durst story is rooted in the real, even as the actions of its protagonist become increasingly disconnected from reality.

It's easy to see why Jarecki has been obsessed with Durst, with his I-dare-you gamesmanship and nutty flamboyance, and it's illuminating to compare the factual and fictionalized iterations. Truth is stranger than fiction, perhaps. But fiction has its own truths to tell, especially when inspired by actual events, actual horrors.

Along with The Jinx's precursor, All Good Things, and its mix of sinister, Patricia Highsmith-like intrigue and tabloid tragedy, here are nine other memorable, and memorably murderous, true-crime pics:

Alpha Dog (2006). Based on the 2000 kidnapping and murder of an L.A. high schooler, Nick Cassavetes' gripping drama explores the same kind of drugs-and-sex teenland that Larry Clark has made a career voyeurizing. Anton Yelchin is the young victim, and Emile Hirsch the titular leader of a gang trading in weed, and murder. Some of the earliest screen work from Ben Foster, Amber Heard, Amanda Seyfried, and Olivia Wilde.

Badlands (1973). Leave it to Terrence Malick to bring dreamy poetry to the story of a guy and a girl on the lam - lamming it because he was going around shooting people for fun (or for nothing at all - a true sociopath). Martin Sheen, doing his best James Dean, plays the character based on the spree-killer Charlie Starkweather, and Sissy Spacek is the clueless teen tagalong, inspired by 14-year-old Caril Ann Fugate. Best voice-over narration ever, in Spacek's prairie twang: "I sat in the car and read a map and spelled out entire sentences with my tongue on the roof of my mouth, where nobody could read them."

Foxcatcher (2014). Bennett Miller was Oscar-nominated for best director, Steve Carell for best actor, and Mark Ruffalo for supporting actor in this chillingly quiet retelling of Newtown Square multimillionaire John du Pont's mentorship of Olympic champion wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), and the murder of his brother. Time is compressed, characters omitted, details changed, but the tragedy that occurred Jan. 26, 1996, has the shock of truth.

Heavenly Creatures (1994). Long before he donned his Hobbit hat, Kiwi director Peter Jackson was immersed in a different kind of fantasy: the one dreamed up by two teenage girls who plotted elaborate imaginary scenarios, then plotted a real-life matricide. Based on the 1954 Parker-Hulme murder case in Christchurch, New Zealand, Jackson's haunting and hallucinogenic movie marks the screen debut of Kate Winslet, with Melanie Lynskey as the daughter of the murdered mom. Winslet's character, Juliet Hulme, moved back to her native England after the trial and established another name, and career, for herself: mystery writer Anne Perry.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990). There's a scene in Nanni Moretti's great 1993 triptych, Caro Diario, where the Italian writer/director/actor emerges from a cinema in Rome, profoundly sickened by what he has just seen. The movie? This one - John McNaughton's grisly 16mm nightmare, with Michael Rooker and Tom Towles in the respective roles of real-life serial killers Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole. Beyond disturbing.

In Cold Blood (1967). Philadelphian Richard Brooks' black-and-white, documentarylike adaptation of Truman Capote's bestseller is about Perry Smith (Robert Blake) and Richard Hickock (Scott Wilson), two men who break into a Kansas farm family's home and murder the husband, wife, and two kids. John Forsythe, the detective who tracks down the killers, is a steady, dogged presence in a movie that avoids even a whiff of sensationalism.

Monster (2003). Charlize Theron won the best actress Oscar for her deep-into-the-marrow portrait of Florida serial killer Aileen Wuornos, a prostitute tried, convicted, and executed for the deaths of six men. Directed by Patty Jenkins, who went on to helm episodes of AMC's Seattle noir The Killing.

Reversal of Fortune (1990). Jeremy Irons nabbed his best actor Oscar for playing Claus von Bülow, the debonair Euro accused, convicted, and acquitted in retrial - twice - in the alleged attempted murder of his heiress wife, Sunny (Glenn Close). Barbet Schroeder's film, adapted from von Bülow defense lawyer Alan Dershowitz's bestseller, is smart and witty and gives the viewer an intimate glimpse into the realms of the super-rich. Technically not part of the "true-crime" genre, because Sunny's insulin overdose - which left her brain-dead (and deadpanning in voice-over in the film) - was deemed accidental in von Bülow's retrials.

Zodiac (2007). David Fincher directs, masterfully, this slow-burning account of the long, frustrating hunt for the serial killer who called himself Zodiac, and who left corpses lying around the Bay Area in the 1960s and '70s, and then teased the media, and the cops, with clues. Robert Downey Jr. is the newspaper reporter on the case; Jake Gyllenhaal an editorial cartoonist who starts sleuthing around; Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards the detectives assigned to the case. A case that has never officially been closed.

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