The only question about Ryan Gosling this awards season is: Which of his two astonishingly detailed performances will win him the nomination?
He gives a heart-breaking portrayal of a man watching his marriage collapse in the upcoming “Blue Valentine.” But his work as creepy wife-killer (or is that alleged wife-killer?) David Marks in Andrew Jarecki’s “All Good Things” is just as impressive: specific, unfussy, and downright chilling.
Based on the true story of real-estate scion Robert Durst, “All Good Things” keeps the audience guessing right from the start: As an attorney examines David in a courtroom on the soundtrack, we see someone – a woman, it appears – driving a car to a deserted bridge and dumping a large trashbag into the water below. It is an image Jarecki returns to a couple more times before he unravels the enigma of just what it is we’re watching.
Having shown us the older David – complete with thinning hair and an age-spotted face – in the opening moments, Jarecki jumps back in time to the early 1970s, where David is a recent college graduate who resists the attempts by his father, Sanford (Frank Langella), to conscript him into the family business. Instead, David falls for Katie (Kirsten Dunst), a golden shiksa princess from Long Island.
They marry quietly at City Hall (his father is his only guest, her mother hers – and the ultra-wealthy Sanford forces Katie’s mom to split the tab for lunch afterwards), then go to Vermont, where the happy couple opens a health-food store. It is an idyllic existence: living a semi-hippie lifestyle (supported by his father), smoking pot, away from the pressure and demands of his family.
Eventually, however, his father gets his way and forces David to come back to the city and work for him. His reward is a lavish apartment on Fifth Avenue, with another house in northern Westchester. Still, David and Katie have each other – or they do until David admits that, no, he has no interest in having children, something Katie desperately wants.
The rest of Jarecki’s film is a descent into David’s internal madness, though we get no real explanation of what it is that’s affecting him. He talks to himself, becomes domineering and pushy, even abusive of Katie. He puts the kibosh on her going to medical school and limits her access to her family. Eventually, they are living almost separate lives – but she can’t seek a divorce without ending up penniless, because none of the money he uses really belongs to him. He’s a trust-fund kid with an unlimited checkbook but no money to actually call his own.
Eventually, David reaches his limit – and Katie disappears. Did he kill her? No one is making that accusation. But she vanishes from their home in Westchester – and a few days later he reports her missing to a precinct in Manhattan. Even more confusing: After he last saw her in Westchester, there were sightings of her at their Manhattan condo.
The film then jumps forward twenty years – to an ambitious Westchester district attorney, who launches a new investigation into Katie’s disappearance. At the same time, David’s best friend, Deborah (Lily Rabe), is murdered in California. Was she killed because she knew too much about David’s business and was putting the squeeze on him for money?
The final weird note: David moves to Texas, where he passes himself off as a mute woman. But he winds up befriending a pensioner (Philip Baker Hall) – who also winds up dead, hacked into pieces and disposed of in plastic garbage bags.
Jarecki weaves an increasingly complex web, most of which is spun out of the quietly warped psyche of David Marks. (And that’s without going into Marks’ eventual capture, also bizarre, or his subsequent history.) Yet he does it without ever making David a monster. Rather, as Gosling plays him, David is a troubled young man who has problems coping with the pressures of family and marriage. What he does to relieve that pressure, however, is suggested but never spelled out.
Which may be the film’s most intriguing aspect. Though Jarecki fictionalizes some things – and makes leaps at other moments to speculate and on what might have happened – he never explicitly offers an explanation for the film’s major events or makes any attempt to plum the twisted psyche of David, a young man who, as a child, saw his mother commit suicide by jumping to her death.
Gosling plays this all with a cool detachment that makes him at once a remote and enticing figure. He allows the viewer to sympathize with David, yet also pushes the viewer away. He finds mannerisms that set off alarms, without “acting” like an oddball. Yes, David talks to himself; on the other hand, he seems to be able to function, even in the cutthroat world of seamy 42nd Street real estate into which his father thrusts him.
Dunst is equally good as a young woman who suddenly discovers she’s out of her depth. It’s not just that her husband isn’t quite who she thought – it’s that he’s protected by a cocoon of family and wealth that isolates and marginalizes her concerns. Langella brings a strange blend of intensity, fatherly concern and high-handedness to the role of David’s father. And the always interesting Philip Baker Hall makes an entertainingly crusty contrast to the soft-spoken but willful David.
“All Good Things” is a family story – but one about a family that guards its secrets and protects its own, no matter what. It’s a believably creepy tale that forces the audience to draw its own conclusions about what did and didn’t happen.