The icy psychodrama "All Good Things" has the eerie power of a nightmare. Inspired by a real-life missing persons case that tarnished the reputation of a powerful New York real estate dynasty in the 1980s, it finds an unsettling resonance between its two central themes: a noirish romance and a murder mystery. Both are stories of pursuit and capture, and the film plays them like sinister, interwoven musical signatures.
Ryan Gosling is riveting as David Marks, the heir apparent to his family's empire. They own a vast swath of sleazy, pre-gentrification Times Square, a swamp of porno theaters and hooker hotels. David is bitter about his family and resentful of his father for reasons we will learn as the film unfolds. Suffice it to say that Sanford Marks (a frigid, menacing Frank Langella) is a monster of depravity to rival "Chinatown's" Noah Cross.
There's something slightly off about David, with his Asperger speech patterns and shifty gaze. But he's attractive and sweet, too. When his father sends him on a flunky's errand to one of his rundown properties, David meets Katie (Kirsten Dunst), an unpretentious charmer who falls for his shy manner and shaggy good looks. David drags her along to a family party as his impromptu date and suddenly she's making small talk with New York's power elite. She reciprocates, inviting David to a down-to-earth dinner at her parents' modest home. Impressed with her values, he pops the question and soon they are off to an idyllic start in Vermont, running a health food store called All Good Things.
Of course, that's half of a pessimistic proverb, and in the film's middle chapters we watch appalled as fate and family pathology dismantle the promising life the couple might have had. Sanford appears like a serpent in Eden to entice David back into the family business. Katie begins thinking of children. Both prospects weigh on David, who begins to shut down emotionally. Kindly, she asks, "Is there something wrong with you?" If she only knew.
A free spirit who always aspired to study medicine, she's soon accepted by a school with a top-notch pediatrics program; the increasingly edgy and impulsive David fears her emerging independence. And then Katie goes missing and David falls under suspicion. The film's final third is a descent into the darker corridors of abnormal psychology. This is the kind of fact-based story that could never fly as fiction; the reality is too bizarre.
Director Andrew Jarecki made a powerful debut with his documentary "Capturing the Friedmans," which also delved into family secrets. Fictionalizing the true-crime story of real estate heir Robert Durst, a suspect in his wife's disappearance and a murder defendant 20 years later, Jarecki insinuates much about various characters' actions but explicitly shows little. A few blunt nerve-jangling effects aside, his approach reminds how, with efficient craftsmanship, less can turn out to be more. As viewers we become detectives, piecing together the clues, and members of the jury delivering our verdict on the characters' guilt or innocence. The film keeps us on our toes while keeping us on edge.
Gosling's David is a man living in a trance of guilt, out of sync with the rhythms of daily life. As much as he yearns for something higher, he's unable to reach out emotionally. The actor has made a specialty of playing weirdo outsiders, and here Gosling has created a tortured monster who inspires involuntary stirrings of sympathy. David Marks is his Norman Bates.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186