Reviewing films that are based on true events are sometimes tricky. If you don’t like the way something is done, the way a character is acting, or the events that transpire, you cannot necessarily attack it in the same way you could if it were straight fiction. Don’t like the characterization of this person or that person? Well, that is how they were in real life. So you can see where sometimes your hands are tied. I ran into some of these problems while watching All Good Things, the new “true crime” film starring Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst that will hit theaters December 3rd. The story revolves around one of the most infamous unsolved murder/missing persons cases in New York history, and while compelling at times, the film itself is plagued with loose ends, unexplained actions, and a departure from the focus of the story that kills momentum. Even if it is really the way things happened.
Gosling plays David Marks, the black sheep of one of the wealthiest real-estate owners in New York. We first meet David as an old man, on trial, telling the story through his testimony and the facts stated by the attorney doing the cross examination. David’s father, Sanford (Frank Langella), scolds him constantly for his lack of direction and apathy regarding the family business. Seemingly out of protest, David marries Katie, an innocent and genteel young girl played by Dunst. Katie is smitten with David, and despite the cold reception from his father she stands beside him. For a while.
Something isn’t quite right with David. He becomes distant, cold, disturbing. He doesn’t want children. When Katie turns up pregnant he forces her to get an abortion. He can force her into submission, make her do things because he basically owns her. If she were to get a divorce she would get nothing, have nothing, because all of David’s wealth is tied up in family trusts that cannot be touched. Katie is stuck and relies on her friend, Lauren (a surprising Kristen Wiig) to get her through. Unfortunately, Lauren’s form of coping involves cocaine. Katie becomes a bit strung out. You can sense her desperation with her situation, and I don’t blame her. David’s 180 degree shift in attitude comes out of nowhere, and is never really explained other than a few hints at his overbearing father and his troubled childhood. There is a ton of psychological damage here, and I would have liked to go deeper with David’s character before things got as weird as they did.
Katie disappears in 1982, and her missing persons case is still open to this day. David abandons New York and moves to Galveston, where he wants to disappear. So he dresses like a woman and lives a life of unbelievable solitude in a small apartment. Here, he befriends an older loon, Melvin, played by the great character actor Philip Baker Hall. He and Melvin develop a very odd friendship, one that David controls to the point where he has Melvin travel to Los Angeles and take care of a loose end that is key in understanding the events of the story. But once David moves to Galveston, and the narrative turns into one about David and Melvin, the focus of the film is completely altered. Once the New York thread is abandoned, and Katie is out of the picture, I found it hard to stay focused on the events at hand. And it didn’t help that what happened in Galveston is so bizarre that I was too busy scratching my head to concentrate on what was happening.
That being said, Ryan Gosling is fantastic in this strange role, one that will probably go unnoticed around Awards season. David is a quiet person, whose calmness turns dark and ominous seemingly overnight. Gosling handles the transformation perfectly, and keeps us interested even when things get too strange to care about. And Kirsten Dunst takes an otherwise flat character and adds some pathos necessary to create a vital, sympathetic character. Director Andrew Jarecki does some interesting things with his camera, creating some very moody set pieces and some moments that will get under your skin regardless of your interest in the plight of these characters.
The things I didn’t like were unavoidable in All Good Things because they were true. But that doesn’t excuse the story from having characters do things without explanation, or have certain scenes after each other that you have a hard time figuring out time and place. One character walks out to a garage in the rain, the next scene is a different character looking at what I thought was a different garage in the rain. Or maybe not. And David’s actions are hinted at, but never validated. I know it’s all true, but that is no excuse for skirting clarity.