Directed by Thomas Dekker
Last week genre staple Thomas Dekker premiered his dark genre hybrid Jack Goes Home at the 2016 SXSW Film Festival, and even by the festival’s Midnighter standards, it proved to be quite the jarring experience. Marking his first major directorial debut (if you don’t count 2008’s Whore, an impossible-to-find indie drama he also wrote and starred in), Jack Goes Home is a polarizing, but deeply personal look into the dark recesses of death, family secrets, and grief.
Rory Culkin (Scream 4, Intruders) stars as Jack, a young man who returns to his childhood home after learning that his father has been killed in a car accident. Upon returning, he is greeted by his temperamental mother, Teresa (Shaye, Insidious); his childhood best friend, Shanda (Chase, The Ring); and mysterious neighbor Duncan (Louis Hunter, “The Secret Circle”). While sorting out his father’s affairs and attempting to dodge his mother’s mood swings, Jack begins to discover that perhaps his family has been hiding some very dark secrets. As he slowly begins to uncover truths about himself in the process, Jack’s world — and sanity — are turned upside down in the most nightmarish ways.
Dekker quite openly admitted that he did not want to make a “pretentious festival film” while creating Jack Goes Home, a narrative that was inspired by his own dealings with grief and his father’s death. For better or worse, however, the end product is in fact quite ostentatious in its scripting and visual execution. As it is rife with ambiguity and heavy with symbolism, Jack Goes Home is much more “arthouse” than traditional thriller or drama if you had to label it, though that is not necessarily a bad thing. The value of each viewer’s experience with the film, however, will in large part depend upon how closely its themes resonate on a raw, emotional level.
Upfront, Jack Goes Home is a significantly contemplative work. The script will be especially frustrating for those who do not have much patience for a dreary cinematic experience that focuses on the tedium of tragedy. There are large chunks of dialogue throughout — particularly between Jack and Shanda and Jack and his mother — that take heavily analytical and philosophical stances on death, love, and loss. While many of these exchanges are sure to induce eye rolls in some, I am sure there will be many viewers who will find enlightening perspectives peppered throughout Dekker’s script. One man’s pretension is often another’s profundity, after all.
Visually, Jack Goes Home is shrouded in an unshakable sense of melancholy, which helps its cause as a subversively bleak and often experimental horror film. As Jack discovers VHS tapes and cassettes left behind by his late father, Dekker’s visuals grow more nightmarish and almost suffocatingly dismal; this palette will no doubt further serve to disconcert audiences already on the fence. The film is chiefly set up as a representation of the world through Jack’s eyes as these truths flood his outlook, and though some of the visual cues grow repetitive and a bit on-the-nose, Dekker mostly succeeds in creating a world that is bizarre and unstable for his suffering protagonist.
Thematic and stylistic idiosyncrasies aside, audiences are most likely to agree that Jack Goes Home‘s lead performances are its highlight. Culkin is hypnotizing as the fragile, but biting protagonist, solidifying himself as a unique genre talent that commands attention in such emotionally engrossing roles. As Jack’s volatile mother, Shaye has an absolute field day as well; I have not seen such a gleeful delivery of truly searing dialogue in a while, and it is great to see this genre vet finally get to revel in such a colorfully villainous role. Hunter and Chase also wonderfully round out the main cast with strong supporting performances, though I wish Dekker had made greater use of the additional talent here — namely, Nikki Reed and Britt Robertson, who feel a bit wasted.
Though Jack Goes Home is ultimately not for everyone, I do feel that the bold nature of Dekker’s approach deserves praise. The story here is so clearly born of an artistic mind faced with the harsh reality of grief and attempting to make sense of it; needless to say, it is impressive to see a director so brazenly put much of his own experience — especially one of such a traumatic nature — into a work like this. Though uneven at times, the film greatly benefits from such a unique and emotionally enveloping approach, at least for this reviewer. Will most genre fans feel the same way? I’d wager to say probably not, though I’m not sure it matters either way for Dekker at this point; Jack Goes Home feels like the result of an artist who has wrestled violently with his demons, only to see them finally exorcised in a very public way. Whether you like the film or not, I’m sure that still feels pretty damn good.