All Good Things

thriller, rated R
2 chiles

This thriller, directed by Andrew Jarecki, is a fictionalized account of the story of Robert Durst, long a suspect in the unsolved disappearance of his wife. In the movie, David Marks (Ryan Gosling) and his wife-to-be, Katie McCarthy (Kirsten Dunst) meet in early 1970s New York City but soon move to Vermont to run a health-food store (the name of which provides the film's title). The two feel mismatched from the start—Katie is vivacious, intelligent, and beautiful, whereas Marks is a brooding mumbler who seems to cherish his own darkness—but because on-screen text has already declared the story 'true' in that it is based on something that really happened, there isn't much room to argue with the credibility of the pairing. We learn that David's father (Frank Langella) is wealthy and mean, a real-estate mogul who summons his son back from the granola wilderness and installs him as assistant slumlord to his Times Square properties. His mother, we are told via a courtroom-based voice-over device, died violently when he was young. Katie's family, on the other hand, is warm and middle-class. They just want her to be happy.

In his first film, the critically acclaimed documentary Capturing the Friedmans, Jarecki used ambiguity to show 'truth' can shift based on point of view. In that nuanced portrait of a family destroyed by sexual-abuse allegations, the subjects earnestly gave themselves over to the camera. The ambiguity came from the multiple perspectives provided inside and outside of the family. The cloying ambiguity of All Good Things at first enhances the movie's surface tension but ultimately serves as an annoyingly simplistic shortcut for screenwriters Marcus Hinchey and Marc Smerling, who expect their audience to accept stoicism, cliché, and some vintage-looking film stock in place of emotional complexity, however deeply buried. The tone is so controlled that it's nearly inert and, upon closer scrutiny, there just isn't very much story there. Is David a sociopath or a traumatized abuse victim who never got enough love to become a whole person? Are the two mutually exclusive? In the case of the Friedman documentary, home movies were used to tell the story; in this case, largely dialogue-free home-movie-like footage is used as filler in the narrative arc.

Many of the performances are outstanding, especially Dunst's, who convincingly portrays Katie's descent from a happy, outgoing young woman to the terrified and confused wife of a man with serious control issues. The script informs us that Katie is in medical school, but the only evidence we see of her intelligence is in the actor's portrayal. The character, as written, could have been frustratingly repetitive in her insistence on trying to make it work with her abusive husband, but Dunst brings something new to each scene, and her resolve and courage are admirable. Gosling's performance is also noteworthy. In his hands, David is all dark interior. Though he is handsome, his skin seems to fit him like a gray plastic sack. Later, when David is shown to be living in disguise, Gosling loosens his control on the character and lets David give into a host of tics and mincing behaviors that had formerly lived just under the skin. Whether or not this is a convincing turn of events or whether it is merely exploitative is a question for Hinchey and Smerling, who don't seem to know what to do with the story once Katie disappears. When she goes, so does the narrative. Noteworthy as well is the absolutely terrible job the makeup people did in aging Gosling to play a present-day version of David. His face appears nakedly synthetic, as though perhaps the character was supposed to have undergone multiple plastic surgeries, but if that is the case, it isn't revealed in the film. Star turns in supporting roles include Saturday Night Live's Kristen Wiig and Parks and Recreation's Nick Offerman, both of whom effectively disappear into their characters while making good use of their impeccable comic timing in a studiously unfunny film.

All Good Things should have been a much better movie. Jarecki is a talented filmmaker, though perhaps his true medium is documentary, and unfortunately, the screenwriters weren't up to the challenge of creating a particularly compelling fictional narrative around the case that served as their inspiration. The ending—in which several scenes conjecturing the truth about Katie's disappearance, as well as several other crimes, are slapped together in a rudderless heap—didn't leave me pondering the possibilities and wondering about the nature of truth, as I suspect the filmmakers hoped it would. Instead, it left me tired and unfulfilled, wishing the story had been told differently in almost every way.    This review originally appeared in Pasatiempo on 12/24/2010