Written just 10 months ago over the span of a few weeks, the journey from development to SXSW Film Festival premiere this past weekend was a whirlwind. Not interested in settling for an autobiographical drama, writer/director Thomas Dekker instead set about creating a horror narrative with deeply personal roots. Paralleling his own personal life tragedies, his film follows protagonist Jack’s return home to attend his father’s funeral and nurse his mother back to health in the aftermath of a horrific car accident. As if the loss of a parent isn’t traumatic enough Jack begins to uncover deep seated family secrets and the past comes back to haunt him.
Jack, played by Rory Culkin, seems to be doing well at the outset. He has a fiancé and a baby on the way, and seems relatively successful in his career. He handles the news of his parents’ tragedy with a level of detachment, and instead opts to focus on the positive; reconnecting with the best friend he left behind, Shanda (Daveigh Chase). Culkin portrays Jack with an effortless affability and with a believable transition into madness and paranoia. Jack’s mother, on the other hand, is unhinged enough to give Norma Bates a run for her money. As Jack’s mother, Lin Shaye gives one of the most unique performances of her lengthy career. She exudes calm sophistication on the exterior, yet is so tightly wound that she’s ready to snap at any moment. She does, often. Jack’s mother lashes out at him constantly, keeping both him and the audience on edge at her mere presence. She provides the catalyst for Jack’s slow descent into madness as the family secrets are slowly uncovered.
It’s largely due to the performances by Shaye and Culkin that the film remains grounded in any way, as the writing haphazardly throws the kitchen sink in there. Just about every trick in the book is employed, and not everything fits. When it does work, it works quite well. Dekker does have an eye for building tension and horrific moments; it’s just jumbled in with a lot of imagery that doesn’t quite fit together. For Dekker, this is likely catharsis and representative to how he was feeling when he lost his own father, but the result is a nightmarish vision; sometime horrific but often surreal and nonsensical.
Over the course of the film, Jack’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic and he devolves into unreliable narrator. It’s this turning point that it becomes harder to root for the protagonist, because we’ve lost a sense of who he is as a person. Plot points introduced early on are never resolved and later characters are introduced with no purpose. It’s a film focused solely on raw grief and emotion over substance and cohesiveness.
Dekker has talent as a director. The film has a great aesthetic and he has an eye for visuals. A lot of the scares work, even if they don’t actually fit into the context of the story. With time, Dekker’s take on horror would be something worth watching.
With excellent leads, unconventional ideas, and scares that are truly effective when they stick their landing, this feature has the perfect combo for being something really memorable. There’s a lot of potential squandered likely due to the rush job in the writing. If Dekker scaled back the experiments with various horror tropes and polished the narrative, instead of rushing through it, this might have been something special. Instead we have a film that starts strong and spirals into an overcrowded nightmare. On some level it works; it just doesn’t make much sense.
Jack Goes Home [SXSW Review]
With excellent leads, unconventional ideas, and scares that are truly effective when they stick their landing,this film ultimately squanders its potential with rushed writing. The narrative starts out strong but devolves into an overcrowded nightmare.