Last week, the HBO series The Jinx ended its first season. Along with being a harbor for provocative, prestige drama, the TV network has also been quite a nice curator and producer of documentaries. With The Jinx, HBO welded these two proclivities together to make a documentary series in the fashion of the recent podcast sensation, Serial. And while The Jinx has had more than enough articles written linking its similarities to Serial, there is a different piece of pop culture from yesteryear that it has much more in common with.
Spurred on by OpVac editor Adam Miros’ suggestion to watch The Jinx, from the 10th episode of the OpVac Cast, I binged the docudrama that surveys the intriguing deaths that have surrounded Robert Durst’s entire life. In Adam’s recommendation, he mentioned that The Jinx cribbed some basic things from Errol Morris’ true crime documentary classic, The Thin Blue Line.
If you’re familiar at all with The Thin Blue Line, perhaps you know its revered as a groundbreaking film, and it’s not novel to hear a new documentary is indebted to Errol Morris’ 1988 film. For instance, it was a given that The Jinx would use dramatic reenactments - everything from Rescue 911 to My Cat From Hell uses the dramatic reenactment as a common touchstone. But even going in with a vague expectation of Errol Morris influence, The Jinx gave me a bit of The Thin Blue Line whiplash. So much so, I decided to revisit the classic documentary in order to articulate what The Jinx owes to TTBL, and why it chose to borrow so much (or why it works so well in the latter).
First, let’s get the more trivial similarities out of the way. TTBL covers the shooting of a policeman in Vidor, Texas in 1976. Although The Jinx covers many preceding events, the Robert Durst case is grounded’ in the finding of body parts in Galveston, Texas. Thus, both documentaries are partially married by a small town Texas spirit.
Also, both texts have had tangible effects on the cases they explore. One of the many significant attributes of Morris’ film is how it led to Texas’ decision to overturn Randall Adams’ life sentence in prison. While making a case for many of the witnesses’ perjury, the film also ends with a somewhat vague admittance by the presumed guilty party that Adams wasn’t guilty, that it was his fault Adams was found guilty. The Jinx ends in a similar fashion, with a statement by Robert Durst that, for the first time, pronounces his guilt. Concurrent to the airing of The Jinx, Robert Durst was arrested for murder.
While these similarities are interesting, I am ultimately more interested in stylistic machinations that The Jinx pilfered from Morris. For instance, police car lights are a defining characteristic of TTBL’s aesthetic. They’re constantly alit during reenactments of the film’s precipitating incident, and Morris uses a close up of a singular revolving red police car light to splice in between talking heads, throughout the film. So, when The Jinx opens on a soft vision of police car lights, it comes off as a near parody of TTBL, a tongue-in-cheek homage that sets the tone for the ensuing style of the series.
Philip Glass, prolific composer, is known as a paragon of minimalist orchestrations. His music has proved to evoke and compliment a variety of different tones, from the sprawling modernity of Koyaanisqatsi to the deep sadness and confusion of The Hours. In TTBL, Glass’ score epitomizes the viewer’s suspicion of the justice system. Morris is perusing historical documents and interviews, building a case against the dubiousness of the state’s decision, and the score accentuates our shared belief that Randall Adams was wrongfully accused. Saying The Jinx composers, West Dylan Thordson and John Kusiak, employ a style that resembles Philip Glass would be kind. It is more or less a carbon copy. But man, it works..of course. And where Glass is accumulating our suspicions about a man’s guilt, The Jinx score enunciates our wavering feelings about Durst’s innocence.
And, as mentioned, The Jinx most obviously borrows from TTBL’s reenactment strategy. Morris’ dramatizations are not noteworthy simply because they exist, but because of his deft hand. He so artfully reproduces various potential versions of the central cop shooting, as told by the many witnesses. But it’s the little accents, like a milkshake being thrown onto the pavement, or recreating a drunken night at the drive-in that create an unsettling, but visually beautiful atmosphere.
Andrew Jarecki, director of The Jinx, doesn’t exactly achieve the same sort of gorgeous visuals, but he does use reenactments for similar reasons. Intermittently using these approximations of what happened into a crime investigation elevate a documentary from an inflated newspaper article with sound to something with a palpable sensation that, frankly, just looks cool too. Those static shots of a tape recorder (another thing The Jinx reproduced) that close out TTBL are still ripe for a hip band’s album cover.
Though I don’t wish The Jinx used reenactments in the same exact fashion as TTBL, I did appreciate the more haunting instances, such as watching his mother jump off a roof, killing herself. I can only imagine that watching the Durst actor disembody his neighbor would have made for a striking scene. But Jarecki is shyer about dramatizations, using them to show us people moving around in locations instead of merely displaying photographs. Thankfully, he has a bit of access to modern things like surveillance video footage that are give us an exact idea of how certain incidents played out.
What The Jinx gives up in the Originality category, it makes up for in taut, compelling drama. Maybe The Thin Blue Line's story feels dated or that the case is 40 years old, but it never feels tense or even that dramatic. Maybe Morris wasn't interested in suspense the way The Jinx clearly is. With The Thin Blue Line, what Morris was able to do was instill a wonderful mood combining artistic reenactments and Philip Glass' evocative score into what would otherwise be a dull, albeit important, crime dossier, setting a new standard for documentary aesthetics that is still effective. Oh, and he also freed an innocent man.