When a filmmaker lenses a thriller based on an unsolved criminal case, he has to confront the imposing challenge of somehow compensating for the lack of closure that the genre demands. In Zodiac, director David Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt solved the problem by making the process of investigation and fact accumulation itself the film’s subject and emphasizing the psychological weight that amasses with the passing years. In All Good Things, Andrew Jarecki’s similarly decade-spanning chronicle of a series of unsolved crimes, all we get is an unproductive ambiguity accompanied by a pounding, thought-neutralizing soundtrack.
Drawing on the true-life story of real estate scion Robert Durst, and told as a series of flashbacks triggered by its lead character’s court testimony, All Good Things stars Ryan Gosling as the mentally unstable David Marks, reluctant heir to his father’s lucrative Times Square holdings. While in an early 1971-set scene, the elder Sanford Marks (Frank Langella) tells an assembly of VIPs of his plans to turn 42nd Street from sex-shop wonderland back to its “former glory” as a family-oriented theater mecca (a proclamation that rings out with amusing historical irony for the contemporary viewer), David plots to flee the family business and his tyrannical, money-obsessed father. But following a brief “back-to-the-land” getaway in Vermont with wife Katie (Kirsten Dunst), which Jarceki shoots in limpid greens and browns on what looks like ‘70s-era low-grade film stock, David agrees to work for his old man, quickly moving from rent collector to a plumb executive position.
As David and Katie live comfortably in both their Manhattan penthouse and their Westchester County country home, the former’s latent madness rapidly becomes actualized, a condition whose violent turns find their victim in an increasingly terrified Katie. By 1982, drug-addled and stripped of his inheritance (“You’re a weak man,” his father tells him), David’s more or less completely on the skids. Then one day, after returning home alone to the couple’s Manhattan apartment, Katie disappears and is never seen again. Cut to 2000, when the Westchester County DA reopens the case. Trying to track down top-suspect Marks proves problematic, however, as he’s living in Galveston, Texas under an assumed (female) name, appearing in a half-hearted drag getup that probably convinces nobody. When he befriends a down-at-the-heels neighbor (Philip Baker Hall), he becomes involved in at least two more crimes for which, when he’s finally corralled, he undergoes trial.
When taken as a whole, the film remains ambiguous both as to David’s moral character (is he a monster or the victim of childhood trauma and an unloving father?) and his criminal activity (though it strongly suggests he’s complicit in at least one murder and seems to debunk the court’s self-defense ruling in another), in individual moments Jarecki leaves little doubt about what we’re supposed to think. Over-directed and music-cued to within an inch of its life, the film alternates between damning imagery—such as framing David’s surprise appearance at his country house like the sudden apparition of a horror film villain or crudely cross-cutting between David smashing someone’s face in with a telephone and the rapt countenances of the jury members at his later trial—and exonerating sequences like a fateful tête-à-tête with his father which unfolds as little more than a round of crudely reductive psychology.
Notably uneven, All Good Things‘s early scenes suggest an intriguing look at the power structures of 1970s New York. While the elder Marks hobnobs with then-future senator Pat Moynihan, mayor Abe Beame tells an associate who hopes to investigate Sanford’s shady practices, “We’re just the custodians. This guy owns the [city].” Similarly, Jarecki shows a meticulous regard for the period detail of the early ‘70s, whether it’s an exactingly recreated Times Square so alien to its present incarnation that it seems like it belongs on another planet or hyperreal close-ups of an electric knife cutting into a turkey, which Jarecki posits as something like the ultimate symbol of the era’s middle-class suburban sensibility.
But when the director shifts his focus exclusively to the dual decline of David’s marriage and his mental health, the film trades its wider curiosity for uncompelling psychological portraiture. At first, an element of tension lingers, with the filmmakers tying the audience’s viewpoint to Katie’s as she discovers the secrets of her husband’s emotionally unstable past, but pretty soon Jarecki’s concerns devolve into watching David go off the deep end, as an admittedly game Gosling is given little to do but throw tables across the room. While the director’s speculative recreation always leaves enough stimulating bits of unresolved business or little enigmatic asides to maintain some level of intrigue, his film suffers from the belief that his lead character is fascinating enough to carry the movie by himself. But it takes more than a little ambiguity and amateur-hour psychoanalysis to make Gosling’s cipher the basis of an engaging screen drama, no matter how much Jarecki’s visual trickery and Rob Simonsen’s assaultive score try to delude us into thinking otherwise.