Unsolved mysteries often make fascinating, if exploitative documentaries, and occasionally a good feature film. 'All Good Things,' based on the strange case of a New York socialite's disappearance and two tangential murders that occurred years later, presses the right buttons as it explores the twisted personality of the prime suspect and bizarre world he navigated. Director Andrew Jarecki creates a fine period feel, recreating the 1970s and the freewheeling attitudes that pervaded the decade, and draws excellent performances from his professional cast, but the story's open-ended nature somewhat hampers the narrative and keeps this well-made picture from achieving complete success.
I first happened upon 'All Good Things' partway through on a cable channel a few months ago, and the film's sinister mood and atmosphere of impending doom wormed their way under my skin and made me eager to watch the movie from the beginning. Though I was unfamiliar with the true-life tale of Robert Durst, whose wife Kathie mysteriously disappeared in 1982 and has never been found, I quickly became intrigued by the case and the events and motivations that fueled it. All the ingredients for a tabloid tantalizer are here - rich, powerful New York family; aloof, arrogant patriarch; recalcitrant son with enough mental issues to baffle Dr. Freud; innocent, disillusioned wife; and several quirky friends. There's sex, drug use, domestic violence, cross-dressing, and personal revelations galore. 'Dateline NBC' couldn't have written the script any better.
Still, this isn't a straight docudrama. The names have been changed to protect both the innocent and guilty, and elements of the story have been altered and embellished, but the plot is no less riveting. David Marks (Ryan Gosling), the sullen, reluctant heir to his Donald Trump-like dad's Manhattan real estate empire, meets the lovely Katie (Kirsten Dunst), a tenant in one of his family's buildings, in the early 1970s and somehow attracts the fresh-faced, sensitive girl from a tight-knit, middle-class Long Island clan. Though David's father, Sanford (Frank Langella), disapproves of the match, the couple embarks upon a life together, fleeing the pressures of the Big Apple for the tranquility and isolation of Vermont, where they open a health food store named All Good Things. Their idyllic existence prematurely ends when the domineering Sanford lures David back to New York and into the family business. The down-to-earth pair quickly get sucked into the exclusive city social scene, and David's refusal to procreate, as well as his controlling, chauvinistic attitude, put a strain on the marriage. Violence erupts, and Katie soon realizes it's much tougher to divorce a powerful family than it is to marry into one.
To successfully tell a tale that has no satisfactory conclusion, there must be layered, complex characters, and 'All Good Things' has them - in spades. Sure, there are plenty of absorbing plot developments, but it's the characters who carry the day, and screenwriters Marcus Hinchey and Marc Smerling draw them with insight and nuance. This isn't so much a film of what happens next, but rather why do things happen and what leads the characters to make the choices they do? And trying to psychologically dissect them as we witness their often off-kilter actions keep us involved.
The trouble is, after Katie disappears - around the one-hour mark - and the story fast forwards to the early part of this century, the movie loses steam, even as the violence ramps up. Perhaps the sketchier details of that time period muddy the waters too much, or perhaps the slowdown is merely the result of losing a character who is such a central force and supplies the tale's heart and soul. Whatever the cause, the goodness of 'All Good Things' vanishes with Katie, and the creepy remains detach us emotionally from the narrative. And that's not a good thing.
Gosling is an excellent actor, and he imbues David with a maddening ambiguity that suits the role well. His placid façade belies the angst and turmoil churning beneath, and it's almost impossible to read his thoughts. His explosions catch us off guard, and we react just as Katie does - with horror, fear, and bewilderment. Yet as strong as Gosling is, the film belongs unequivocally to Dunst, who files arguably her best portrayal as the sweet, naïve, and ultimately betrayed and bitter Katie. Natural and endearing, yet with an inner strength and fierce determination, Dunst brings Katie to life, and we feel and mourn her loss, both because we bond with her character and because the film can't fill the void left by her.
Langella contributes another razor sharp portrayal as the manipulative, egomaniacal father, and Philip Baker Hall asserts himself well as a cranky neighbor with whom David develops a close relationship years after his wife's disappearance. Yet all the good acting can't quite help 'All Good Things' realize its early promise. It's still an often fascinating examination of a dysfunctional relationship and how personal demons, familial pressures, and the scars of youth can overtake and destroy what looks on the surface to be a charmed existence, but it falls just shy of becoming the memorable, haunting picture it could - and should - have been.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'All Good Things' comes packaged in a standard Blu-ray case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Upon insertion of the disc, a few previews precede the full-motion main menu with music.
'All Good Things' comes to Blu-ray sporting a pleasing, if not spectacular, 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer that features a slightly washed out palette, but good clarity and contrast. A modicum of grain lends the image welcome grit and a realistic feel, and exteriors exude nice depth. Colors don't pop, but look natural, as do fleshtones, which remain stable and true throughout the film's course. The garish '70s fashions sporadically perk up the picture, with even the most intricate patterns resisting shimmers. A shot of Dunst through a sliding glass door exhibits a crystal clear reflection, but dimensionality comes at a premium, usually during close-ups, which show off facial details well.
Black levels are solid, but some noise creeps into the background of low-light sequences, most noticeably around the one-hour mark. Fine details are generally clear, and texture comes through nicely on various fabrics. No digital enhancements or imperfections muck up the works, keeping this transfer clean, sleek, and faithful to the original source.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track emits clear, dynamic sound that's surprisingly detailed for a film of this sort. Plenty of ambience spreads out among the rears, and when coupled with noticeable stereo separation, the effect is a wide, involving audio field that really draws us into the film. The Steely Dan tunes burst with fidelity and tonal depth, and the instrumental score fills the room well. Though there's not much bass to speak of, the low-end of the range scale possesses nice resonance. Dialogue, of course, takes center stage, and it's always well prioritized and easy to understand, even when mumbled. Happily, no distortion issues arise, nor are there any instances of surface noise or drop-out. This is by no means a bells-and-whistles track, but what's here is crisply presented and more nuanced than one might initially expect.
A decent array of extras round out the disc and provide some nice context and perspective on this true-life mystery.
The superior work of Kirsten Dunst and, to a lesser degree, Ryan Gosling distinguish 'All Good Things,' which depicts one of New York's most notorious unsolved cases with elegance and insight. Though the film lags a bit after its first hour, it remains an absorbing psychological study that's well worth checking out. Above average video, nuanced audio, and a healthy spate of supplements enhance this little-known release that deserves a wider audience.