In his excellent collection of movie reviews Harlan Ellison's Watching, the science-fiction author gives this advice to writers attempting to base stories on real events: "It doesn't matter if it's true; it matters if we believe it's true. The question, thus, devolves not on authenticity, but on verisimilitude."
I thought of that wisdom during the last act of All Good Things, the crime thriller based on the seamy life of the wealthy New York real estate developer Robert Durst. (What you might consider a spoiler lies just ahead.) The character modeled on him, David Marks (Ryan Gosling), is suspected in the disappearance of his wife. Fleeing his troubles, he moves to Texas and begins living as a woman.
Now this is what Durst actually did, but the scenes of Gosling cross-dressing just don't work. That's partly because although he is mesmerizing here and elsewhere, Gosling makes such an implausible woman that we never believe he is pulling off the hoax. Scenes of him jogging with a mincing step are simply perplexing, especially after all the mayhem we've seen. Brian DePalma played this theme for camp in Dressed to Kill, much more successfully. But I don't think director Andrew Jarecki means us to laugh.
These aren't the only implausible scenes. In another, Marks drags his wife, Katie (Kirsten Dunst), by the hair from her college graduation party. She is surrounded by family and friends, yet no one says a word. Again, this may be exactly what happened, but on the screen it doesn't make sense. People intervene forcefully when they see strangers being assaulted, much less friends or family members.
I can imagine a film that handles the cross-dressing stuff smartly, and the scenes involving it might succeed if Jarecki laid better groundwork for them. But the plot, which unfolds over decades, is developed in a choppy, episodic way, and we never get a satisfying handle on Marks, on why he is so brutal. An explanation involving a childhood trauma is crushingly sad but a little pedestrian.
The film's shortcomings are too bad, because there are the elements of an interesting story here. Defying his tycoon father (Frank Langella), David marries a middle-class suburbanite and opens a health-food store in Vermont. But eventually he gives in and joins the sleazy family business. Chaos follows. The film is lifted somewhat by the performances of its cast, including the creepy if inscrutable work of Gosling, who is making a fascinating career playing various broken people.
Jarecki's only other feature-length film is Capturing the Friedmans, the 2003 documentary about child sexual abuse in Long Island. It's one of my favorite documentaries, and if its details also are lurid and implausible, the film succeeds thanks to its subtle, ambivalent relationship to the truth - to what actually happened versus what people say happened. There's very little subtlety in All Good Things, which would seem like a television docudrama except for its prominent stars.
I wrestled with whether to disclose the cross-dressing element, since the film uses cheap suspense in introducing it. But I think my spoiler anxieties mainly point to the film's problems with truth and fictionalization. Can revealing a plot element be a spoiler if everyone already knows it from Dateline NBC?