Imagine a Law & Order episode involving a cold case in which everyone knows the husband did it but no one can prove it. Then, say, Jerry Orbach, or Benjamin Bratt, gets an unexpected break, there’s a crazy trial, a bizarre follow-the-money sequence, and a Poe-worthy twist where it turns out the husband didn’t do it at all and everything unravels and the leftover string ties up in a neat and unexpected bow around some other conclusion, possibly the real estate mogul father or a jealous lover at the medical school or even the victim herself, committing suicide in a desperate attempt to flee the confines of an abusive marriage; maybe even setting her death up to look like a murder for which her abusive shit of a husband would look like Mister Prime Suspect. Something like that.
OK. Now, take away the cool ending, the twist, the trial, and Bratt and Orbach and go back to “everyone knows the psychotic rich guy killed his wife but no one can prove it.” If you want to be totally unsurprised for two hours, I cannot recommend this TV movie enough.
Based on True Life Events, The Lost Wife of Robert Durst manages to pull off a fairly spectacular feat. It takes a sensational story: New York millionaire real estate scion Bobby Durst is something of a family embarrassment, because he doesn’t cut his hair short (yo, it might be the 1970s, but millionaire assholes keep their hairlines above their shirt collars, OK, Bobby?) and because he has a strange obsession with Prudence Farrow and because he has a weird habit of disappearing his pet German shepherds and replacing them with new ones, all of whom are named Igor. Oh, and because he might be a violent schizophrenic. The family ain’t talkin’, but you can tell from the very first facial tic that this guy’s a loaded weapon. You know who can’t tell? Kathie, the wholesome girl who becomes his wife. So there’s that. Now: It initiates a pattern of escalating psychological and physical abuse, makes a point of how she does not leave him, has him murder her and get away with it, and manages to make it a total snooze-fest.
It’s not the performers’ fault, by the way. Katharine McPhee and Daniel Gillies are very well cast as the doomed couple and turn in totally, 100% respectable performances. It’s not that.
I’m trying to be precise here and I might fail, but I think we’re in a veracity trap. A murder mystery should be mysterious. This one is not. There is never an alternate theory, never a clue that leads away from Bobby Durst, never a moment when you don’t know he freaking killed his wife and not much in the way of making the story about why the obviously guilty dude got away with it, which is actually the interesting story buried alive in this coffin of a murder drama. Now, these were real people (are: Durst is still alive and awaiting trial for another murder, that of his friend Susan Berman) and TV and film have certain obligations in how they treat real people. You have to be very careful about making shit up to make it good TV if your subject is a real, living person, and in reality, this was a case that was not solved, so that’s what we’re working with. Focus too much on the weirder elements (did Kathie try to mail documents about her husband’s mental health status to someone and did people in high places intercept them because his powerful father didn’t want it known his son was schizophrenic?) and perhaps you’re courting not only invasion of privacy but libel or slander. I don’t know. There are both legal and ethical questions around the airing of dirty laundry, but also, a murder investigation is a murder investigation. However you mince it, you have constraints when you take on non-fictional subjects, but if you’re going to do it, find an angle that works. While it purports to “shed light” on Kathie’s story, and to reveal the dark and twisted inner workings of a powerful family and a possibly dangerous mentally ill man, it actually specializes in glossing over… like, everything. All this movie needed was a voiceover track (Peter Thomas, say, or perhaps someone eclectic, like Candice Bergen?) and it could have been a true-crime re-enactment instead of a movie. That actually might have been a better way to play this, since clearly even the Emmy-winning director and Emmy-nominated screenwriter were not planning to take any artistic risks. (Perhaps they feared shadowy knee-cappers from the NYC real estate underworld? That would have been interesting.)
There’s a moment, and forgive me for not remembering when because the film cuts between the 1970s and 1980s relentlessly, but I believe it is meaningfully placed at the end, where Kathie comes home and I think it’s That Fateful Night? Anyway, she’s looking through the glass in the front door and she can see straight through to where Robert Durst stands with his back to her, staring out the living room windows at the creepy-looking lake on whose edge their house sits. She’s looking at him through glass; he’s looking away from her, through glass, at the water. They both look like they’re about to do something they won’t be able to undo. It’s a well-composed shot.
Lest it seem like I’m panning this thing, I want to make sure I’m clear. That’s a well-composed shot. Truly.
But honestly, if you’re looking for drama, keep looking. As my ex-agent patiently explained to me about my first novel, just because something dramatic happened in real life does not mean it will make satisfying dramatic material in fiction. (Gail, point taken, lady!) Whatever really happened to Kathie Durst was a tragedy and in overwhelming likelihood a crime. What this movie does to her story probably falls short of being criminal, but if boring were actionable, I’d be advising this film to seek counsel.
The Lost Wife of Robert Durst premieres Saturday, Nov. 4 at 8 p.m. on Lifetime.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.