Film Review: 'All Good Things,' a Sharp, Unsettling Inspired-by-Real-Life Thriller From 'Capturing the Friedmans' Director Andrew Jarecki

An unsettling psychological thriller centered on three riveting performances.

The case of Robert Durst is one of the strangest and most exasperating in the annals of unsolved crime. Long suspected of responsibility for two dead bodies and one missing person, he's been the subject of numerous investigations by journalists and, less fruitfully, the judicial system.

All Good Things, Andrew Jarecki's first narrative feature, sticks to the known facts, changes everyone's name and imagines its way into the dark corners of the story. As in his haunting documentary Capturing the Friedmans, the crimes and misdemeanors of the nuclear family are a central concern, but here the director also explores the unholy trinity of money, power and privilege.

Toplined by Ryan Gosling, Kirsten Dunst and Frank Langella, all delivering riveting portrayals, the inspired-by-real-life thriller should draw solid business when it opens Friday in New York and a week later in Los Angeles. The downbeat nature of the material might limit audiences, and those who prefer their murder stories neatly wrapped by the end credits will find the film unsatisfying. But like the underappreciated Zodiac, Things chooses not to use crime as a way to explain, reassure and set the world right; it's a sharp and unsettling depiction of human mysteries and the elusiveness of justice.

Spanning 30 years, the screenplay by Marcus Hinchey and Marc Smerling opens in 1971 with the terrifically spacey-sweet meeting of David (Gosling) and Katie (Dunst). He's the "vagabond son" of Sanford Marks, one of New York's top real estate developers and, in Langella's intense performance, a refined thug with never-ending disappointment in David. She's a tenant in a Marks Midtown building, and not long after David's arrival on her doorstep as a surrogate plumber, tuxedoed and stoned, they marry. But their idyll in Vermont, where they open a health food store whose name gives the film its title, doesn't withstand Sanford's pressure on David to straighten up and join the family business.

The young couple's bond is tested in the high life of disco-era Manhattan, where power and sleaze often tangle. In pre-Disneyfied Times Square, David makes the rounds collecting rent from flophouses and peep shows. Beyond the oppressive relationship with his father, something's off with David, who's given to muttering to himself and worse. The details of a horrendous childhood trauma are gradually revealed, and Gosling creates a fascinating black-sheep composite of awkward charm and profound emotional damage.

Before the story turns toward gruesome murder and offbeat melodrama, one of its most discomforting elements is Katie's decision to stay with David. But Dunst, in her best screen performance to date, is far more than a "nice blond shiksa," as David's mouthy friend Deborah (Lily Rabe) calls her -- more too than a "beautiful young medical student," the media's favorite handle for the real estate heir's missing wife, which would be Katie's ultimate role. Negotiating the narrow ledge between love and self-interest, Dunst embodies a complex mix of middle-class humility and worldly ambition, and she shows how something goes dead in the vivacious Katie long before her 1982 disappearance.

In Jarecki's hybrid of the rigorously researched and the imagined, it's the documented facts that are the oddest. The final half-hour belongs to David's bizarre fugitive interlude in Galveston, Texas, where he befriends a lost soul with the wonderful name of Malvern Bump, well played by Philip Baker Hall. Framing the decades-long saga are courtroom scenes from 2003; David's testimony comes straight from the transcripts of Durst's only murder trial, as does his voice-over commentary -- the ultimate in unreliable narration. The Durst Organization has threatened to sue over its depiction, but every character is deeply flawed, not least a double-dealing D.A. (Diane Venora).

Despite some choppy transitions and a few melodramatic moments that don't work, the film casts an effective, deepening chill. With the help of Rob Simonsen's rich score, Jarecki pushes the story's thriller edge while keeping the viewer just outside the increasingly troubled characters. The design team gets the period detail right, especially in the seedy bygone Times Square. DP Michael Seresin's muted palette is a nod to '70s cinema, with well-chosen Steely Dan numbers further evoking that era of ruin and possibility.

Opens: Friday, Dec. 3 (Magnolia Pictures)
Magnolia Pictures and Groundswell Prods. present a Hit the Ground Running film
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Kirsten Dunst, Frank Langella, Philip Baker Hall, Diane Venora, Lily Rabe, Kristen Wiig, John Cullum, Trini Alvarado, David Margulies
Director: Andrew Jarecki
Screenwriters: Marcus Hinchey, Marc Smerling
Producers: Marc Smerling, Andrew Jarecki, Bruna Papandrea, Michael London
Executive producers: Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Michelle Krumm, Janice Williams, Barbara A. Hall
Director of photography: Michael Seresin
Production designer: Wynn Thomas
Music: Rob Simonsen
Co-producers: David Rosenbloom, Marcus Hinchey
Costume designer: Michael Clancy
Editors: David Rosenbloom, Shelby Siegel
MPAA rating: R, 101 minutes