This kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen in real life. Eccentric Robert Durst, scion of a Manhattan real estate dynasty, is being interviewed by filmmaker Andrew Jarecki for HBO’s documentary series The Jinx, investigating accusations that Durst murdered three people, including his wife, and got away with it. They’ve just gone over the 2003 trial in which a Texas jury acquitted him of murder, though he admitted killing a man and hacking his body into pieces.
Jarecki takes a break and steps out. The camera keeps rolling. And Durst begins, like a movie supervillain, to monologue.
“I did not knowingly, purposefully lie,” Durst whispers to himself. He takes a sip from a cup and repeats it, like an actor running lines between takes. He varies it: “I did not knowingly, purposefully, intentionally lie.” It’s not a confession exactly, but it’s chilling anyway, as if Durst were removing a mask, checking it for blemishes before putting it back on. It doesn’t look good–as is clear to Durst’s lawyer, who hustles in to warn, “They could just hear every word you said.”
In a TV cop drama, I’d roll my eyes at the scene. Too perfect. Too convenient. But reality has written a hell of a story for The Jinx. The details are delicious. (Durst once lived incognito as a mute woman.) The thesis is provocative. (Did a rich killer buy freedom? Forget it, Jinx; it’s Chinatown.) And the subject (who contacted Jarecki himself after Jarecki directed a fictional film based on Durst’s wife’s disappearance) is mesmerizing: his dispassion, his mixture of frankness and elusiveness–and, brrr, those dead eyes, as coal-black as if digitized by CGI for True Blood.
You could be forgiven for believing that The Jinx was fiction; it packages its material into one of TV’s most addictive stories using the tools and artistry of crime drama. The most obvious analogue is Serial, the 2014 podcast that reinvestigated the 1999 murder of Maryland high school student Hae Min Lee, for which her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted. Parsing the circumstantial evidence, drilling into minutiae, Serial cast doubt on the conviction and the certitude of the jury-trial system itself. And it did so, befitting its name, like serial drama, using cliffhangers, strategic reveals and musical cues to heighten emotion and suspense; it even made host Sarah Koenig into a character, as she questioned Syed and wrestled with her doubts.
But The Jinx also looks a lot like HBO’s dramas. Like True Detective, it involves a decades-long mystery, an unreliable interrogation subject and allegations of ghastly crimes involving a powerful family. It even begins, like many HBO series, with haunting credits. The brooding “Fresh Blood” by Eels plays over artful images of bodies falling, a man striking a woman, a sheet being unfurled over a corpse. There’s no metaphor here: they’re re-enactments of real violence, to real people, recalled by Durst and witnesses. It’s aestheticized death, and it feels icky to watch–but it’s undeniably effective.
And The Jinx’s case is gobsmacking. In the March 8 episode, Jarecki finds a bombshell: an envelope, from Durst’s return address, with the same misspelling (“BEVERLEY HILLS”) in apparently the same handwriting as one that tipped off police to the dead body of his friend Susan Berman, in whose 2000 murder Durst was implicated but never charged.
It’s the kind of headline Law & Order was made to rip. But in an important way, The Jinx and Serial are antidotes to that kind of cop procedural. There’s no guarantee that the wicked will be jailed or the innocent exonerated by the time the credits roll. They emphasize that justice is a complex process, subject to random derailment and manipulation–including by storytellers: the cinematic arsenal these narratives use can make a powerful case in the court of public opinion.
The stories may end up making a real-world difference; Syed’s appeal and the Berman murder inquiry have reportedly been reopened. But will we ever know everything? Can we? The one thing these antiprocedurals are most certain about is the slipperiness of certainty.
That, at least, is one belief Durst seems to share. After his lawyer warns him about his hot-mike lapse, he keeps talking. “I didn’t tell the whole truth,” he says. “Nobody tells the whole truth.”
This appears in the March 23, 2015 issue of TIME.