All Good Things Dir. Andrew Jarecki

[Magnolia Pictures; 2011]

Styles: thriller/mystery/crime/family drama
Others: Capturing the Friedmans, Sleeping with the Enemy, The Stepfather

David (Ryan Gosling) first meets Katie (Kirsten Dunst) at her place. He shows up unannounced and tries to fix her kitchen sink. She lives in an apartment owned by David’s father, Frank Langella, a wealthy New York slum lord. David brings Katie to his father’s party that same night. Things go well.

A few scenes later, they are married. Her sink, her apartment, the connection between them and David’s dad — none are ever mentioned again. After marriage, David starts acting a little strange, taciturn, and creepy. He and Langella share terse words over the fact that Katie isn’t a member of the New York gentry, prompting David to flee with her to the country, open a health food store, and aim for the simple life.

A few scenes later Langella has lured them back to the city. David has taken a job in his father’s business, collecting rent in the slums. He buys Katie a fancy apartment; she’s happy. He tells her he never wants kids; she gets depressed.

A few scenes later, she’s living apart from him at a lake house in the country. Alone in New York, David grows stranger, more taciturn, gloomy. Langella pops up occasionally to admonish him for being a bad slum lord. Katie’s dog goes missing; she suspects David.

A few scenes later, Katie goes missing; the world suspects David. A media ruckus arises. There is a gap in the story. Then we see David as an old man, giving testimony for a case in which he’s been accused of killing another old man.

After many years, Katie’s case is reopened, prompting David to very suspiciously retreat from his life, get a new apartment, dress like a woman. Not much later, his new neighbor, Philip Baker Hall, disappeared. This is the reason David has been called to court. He recounts the details of his relationship with Hall, which involved cross-dressing, target practice and the plotting of murders. The Katie disappearance is tangentially mentioned. Elsewhere, Langella, now very old, dies.

Back in court, it’s revealed that David killed Hall. The movie ends and a few title cards tell us David went free. The entire time the score has not stopped booming; the violins have not stopped ominously hinting at the dark side of David, the quiet, brooding rich kid turned cross-dressing old man.

This is the movie All Good Things. It’s ostensibly based on a true story. Gosling’s character David is based on Robert Durst, who is still around, under house arrest for myriad, brazen crimes. Many scenes from his life are included, strung together more or less in the form of a thriller: character motivations are suggested, people who know one another have heated conversations, violence periodically strikes one person or the other dead. Yet none of it makes sense except in moments of extreme, possibly accidental lucidity, on a scene-by-scene basis. It’s generally indiscernible, something like smoking pot before picking up a trashy paperback, turning to a random page, reading for a minute, putting it back down, smoking again, picking it back up, turning to another random page (possibly, though not necessarily, farther into the book) reading a bit more, and so on.

Movies like this are made by people — writers and directors, I mean — who believe only halfheartedly in the stories they want to tell. They have ideas for how scenes should look, how characters should say certain lines, what they should wear, how music should sound, etc. But when they begin to think about stringing everything together, making the movie’s disparate elements cohere so that the audience can follow — if not, as would be ideal, emotionally, then at least temporally — they falter. They don’t have a vision; they don’t know what kind of movie they’re trying to make. The impression we get is that, on any given day’s shooting, director Andrew Jarecki (the rigorous, fascinating documentary Capturing the Friedmans) may have considered his script a thriller, possibly a psychological one. On the next day, he may have reconsidered his ideas and started to shoot a mystery (after all, they don’t have to be mutually exclusive). On a third day, the whim may have struck to turn the proceedings into a crime film. At the end of the week, he may have thought he was working on a family drama. Always, the focus seems to have been on things like the lighting — is it striking? — and the acting — should the actors scowl or cry or yell? ‘Why’ doesn’t seem to have been addressed: Gosling is a stolid, enigmatic nut; Langella is an irascible old despot; Dunst is a cute, trusting nymph — nothing deeper is offered, and the plot seems to be made up of dramatized excerpts from newspapers. The result of artistic indecision is generally something like the lumpy, moody mess that is All Good Things: a genuinely bad film.

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