Thursday, January 6, 2011

Love & Squalor: All Good Things

All Good Things inhabits the uncomfortable realm of things stranger than fiction.  Yet, it is, in fact spun off of the bizarre details of a very true tale.  Capturing the Friedmans director Andrew Jarecki chose this twisted American nightmare as the subject for his first narrative feature, and one might venture a guess that he opted to fictionalize after not wanting to dare cross paths with his still living subject.  The real-life basis for Ryan Gosling's on-screen character David Marks is Robert Durst (now 67), the son of a real estate titan who has been a suspect in the disappearances and murders of several individuals beginning with his wife Kathleen McCormick in 1983.  Where in reality Durst's involvement in the crimes themselves has never been proven, many of the other odd behaviors exhibited by Gosling's Marks are explicitly factual, and need to be seen to be believed.  I won't tell you everything that happens, but let's just say Marks is here characterized as a very unreliable narrator who falls somewhere between American Psycho's Patrick Bateman and Psycho's Norman Bates.  Psycho x 2.  You can't trust him.  He's vague, played at an untouchable (yet at times oddly human) distance at which the viewer can't fully grasp his motivation and Jarecki doesn't seem to dare try bringing the viewer around to Marks' way of thinking.  Where All Good Things at first appears to be a murky thriller or a straight-laced delving into the bad behaviors of the upper echelon, all scandal and corruption, it transforms into an enigmatic curiosity steeped in a confusing mixture of emotional adeptness and near camp.

Without a doubt, the best thing to come from All Good Things is Kirsten Dunst, who here reminds us that she is an actress who can deliver more than rain-soaked make-out sessions with Spider-Man.  Dunst swipes Gosling's thunder repeatedly during her time on screen.  As David's pretty young wife Katie, her transition from hopelessly in love young hippie to jaded, abused and confused socialite is an effortless one.  Katie is a character whose emotions span a broad range, and whose motivations can easily be faulted by the audience.  You could ask, for example, after David forces her to abort their child, why she would stay with a man so clearly on a different track then her, who causes her so much physical/emotional pain.  In most cases, a character like Katie's could easily become an annoyance, another casualty of spousal abuse who stupidly hangs on to her man, trapped by a twisted dysmorphic logic or poor sense of self-worth.  While Katie may be just that, Dunst never plays her like the passive prisoner.  On screen, Dunst and Gosling work.  We see their relationship at its highest highs and its lowest lows, and along with it are given the means to paint each of them as victims of mental illness.  Katie is not equipped to understand what's happening to David while David is similarly unaware of his own disintegration.  The push/pull of love and hatred, want and disgust makes for a compelling, tumultuous relationship drama.  This is the stuff of the most lurid of headlines.  It grabs you with the promise of a shattered American dream and keeps you guessing all the way through its inconclusive credits.

Of course, the problem with All Good Things is one shared by those tabloid headlines:  it can't offer you everything, it can't give you the entirety of the story in a single-serving article, at times it speculates and sensationalizes to a fault.  All Good Things takes place over the span of several decades, beginning with the meeting of David and Katie in the early 70's, and progressing through to David's trial in the early aughts.  It's an incredible amount of time to cover in a relatively short amount of film, and the story moves at a clipped pace that springs from scene to scene, period to period.  Katie never seems to age much past their meeting, David (when he does age) looks significantly older than the sum of his years, his father (Frank Langella) is as old in 1973 as he is at the time of his death in the mid-90's.  The result of its temporal flux, the speed of its narrative, and the film's motivation to focus (reasonably enough) on the important bits is ultimately a rather jumbled mess that feels stationary even as it's dashing madly.  If it weren't so damned fascinating, so oddly entertaining, All Good Things would just be a hastily crafted extended montage that picks up more little twists after it inconclusively lets others drop.  It should be said, it's similarly hard to believe that the arc of Katie and David's relationship takes place over a decade and not a single year.  For the sake of the film, it would have been best if Jarecki ditched the documentarian's need to stick to the "facts" and abridged a bit for the sake of the story.  As it stands, Jarecki's debut is a mixed bag.  The performances are solid, but at times they're buried under a skimming slide show of a story.  So, while All Good Things is an undeniably entertaining curio (and a thriller that's truly far from the status quo; vaguely disturbing in an almost Mommie Dearest way), it's hard to escape its surface flaws or the knowledge that it really could have been better.

In case you were wondering:  Robert Durst enjoyed the movie

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