All Good Things plays like the cliff notes to a strange and brilliant mystery. Mirroring one of the most fascinating missing person cases of the twentieth century, it quickly weaves class warfare, murder and family secrets across its thirty year scope, but with a running time of 100 minutes and a director unwilling to gloss over any plot points, it never pauses long enough to let viewers care. The result is a hallow mess of wasted and wonderful acting performances. There’s a great story in here somewhere, it just needed a liberal editor or an extra hour and a half of screen time.
David Marks (Ryan Gosling) is an emotional mess. The son of a real estate tycoon father (Frank Langella) and a mother that left only scars, he’s a disappointment to everyone, including himself. More than success, he wants escape. Katie McCarthy (Kirsten Dunst) is his flight plan. Exuberant, happy and middle class, she’s the antithesis of the distant, miserable and stunningly affluent David. He takes her to a ritzy black tie dinner with the mayor. They sneak out and smoke pot. Soon, they’re married and running a health food store in Vermont that’s hemorrhaging his father’s money. Disappointed, the couple return to New York where he takes up a job collecting rent checks for his father. City life proves to be a difficult adjustment. David grows depressed and retreats into himself. Katie copes using cocaine and dreams of divorce.
Divorce eventually defers to distance. She moves into their weekend home and starts attending school. He joylessly inhabits the New York City apartment and continues paying the bills. By all accounts, it’s a rather dreadful existence, one exacerbated by a compromise she wasn’t ready for and a violent outburst he couldn’t suppress. The misery doesn’t last long. The aftermath stretches out for decades. Still, we get the same hurried pace. New characters are introduced and integrated into the plot immediately. Decisions are made. People die. We’re teleported back and forth and on again to the next big moment. And then it ends, leaving viewers to ask how the hell something so bizarre actually happened.
It did. The real life Robert Durst was every bit as odd and puzzling as David Marks. His wife really did go missing, and the whole thing evolved into a macabre freak show, the type of outlandish intrigue that cries out for a film. Just not this film. Somehow, All Good Things manages to turn a crazy premise into a pointless, blow by blow rehashing too ludicrous to be believed. Strange things do happen, but in order to explain why, you need to do more than sum up the facts. Otherwise, you end up with a bad pseudo documentary.
Take for example a scene in which Katie discusses with a classmate the possibility of David finding out she applied to medical school. Express cut to David finding her acceptance letter. Take for example David’s father, a formal, standoffish upper class snob that constantly berates David for underachieving. See him ask David to join the family business. See him call David a failure. See him sigh at his son’s mistakes, manipulate the system for monetary gain and then call David a failure again. Take for example Katie’s middle class family. See them drink Budweisers, talk about how rich David is and make a homemade ham with pineapples on it. See them do everything but change their name to the Workingclasses.
Characters are defined only by their actions. People are more complicated. They open up in quiet conversations and in moments of contradiction. They inhabit the gray areas and layer themselves with complex motivations. David and Katie are just characters. They meet, they get married, they fight, they fuck and they ruin each other’s lives. I know these facts because All Good Things told me, but what I don’t know is why they love each other. I don’t know why she sticks around, what they laugh about or why it all makes sense, at least to them. I don’t know anything I couldn’t have learned in a cursory encyclopedia entry.
Great films make you work for the payoffs. They string scenes of rising tension together until it all boils through sheer willpower. All Good Things eschews those momentum-building fillers for an hour and forty minutes of nearly all hardcore boil. Initial meetings flow into marriages. Fights flow into abuse. First times flow into addiction. There’s no break for the audience or the actors. Ryan Gosling, Kirsten Dunst and Frank Langella all perform admirably in scene after scene of neverending drama, but without a reason to care, it’s just emotion for emotion’s sake.
There’s a lot to like here. All Good Things looks visually beautiful. 1970s era New York City feels very authentic. The acting occasionally borders on great. The story itself is more than worthy. But none of that comes close to overcoming the misguided pacing and overall lack of depth. True stories may beholden themselves to a fixed story arc, but for a film all too willing to purport its ultimate, unproven hypothesis of exactly what happened, All Good Thing’s obsession with including every major plot point at the expense of detail makes the resulting sum unsuitable as anything other a paraphrased synopsis.