Thomas Dekker’s Jack Goes Home opens on a shot of Jack (Rory Culkin) staring directly into the camera as he solemnly intones a ponderous poem filled with lines like “Shattered pieces of elusive memory steeped in pixelated streaks and auto-tracked frames.” When his poem is interrupted by a co-worker for a bit of office banter, we learn that Jack is one of those pedantic assholes who enjoys picking semantic arguments with people over their use of words like “bro.” This is a singularly unappealing introduction to a character whose psychological terrain will be the film’s primary subject, establishing him as pretentious, off-putting, and not nearly as clever as he thinks he is.
After Jack learns that his father has died in a car crash, he travels back home to stay with his mother, Teresa (Lin Shaye), as she recovers from injuries suffered in the same accident. Jack is at first unfazed by the tragedy: “We live, we drive, we crash, we die,” he blankly tells his girlfriend, Cleo (Britt Robertson). But it quickly becomes clear that his cold exterior is masking a fractured psychology wracked by grief. At home, he will discover dark family secrets that only exacerbate his deteriorating mental state.
Dekker lards up Jack Goes Home’s narrative with enough shocking revelations for three movies, all while cycling through about a dozen different tonal approaches, veering almost at random from ghost story to family drama to erotic thriller to black comedy. But he always lapses back into a study of Jack’s fundamentally incoherent psyche. Ultimately, it feels like Dekker has reverse-engineered Jack from all the sundry plot twists, dream sequences, and one-liners he wanted to include. Culkin does his best with the part, bringing an icy intensity to the role that seems partially modeled on Jake Gyllenhaal’s Nightcrawler performance, but he’s saddled with a character that flits through as many permutations as the film’s tone. Dekker attempts to provide an explanation for Jack’s inconsistencies in the form of a ludicrous final plot twist, but even that can’t make sense out of the mess that’s preceded it.
The film’s genre hopping and preposterous plotting might not be so bad if Dekker seemed like he was having more fun directing it all. In its better moments, like the scenes that pit Jack against his mother in increasingly hysterical confrontations, Jack Goes Home suggests the fever-pitched outlandishness of 1970s horror films like Alice, Sweet Alice and The Baby, but more often Dekker resorts to talky, rhythm-less dialogue scenes filmed in bland, undifferentiated close-ups. This under-directed muddle is punctuated by over-directed dream sequences and scare scenes that lean heavily on images cribbed from horror classics like Repulsion and Suspiria.
Jack’s opening poem ends with two questions: “Who are you? And what am I?” Dekker might very well have asked himself the same thing because, as a director, he’s ultimately just like Jack: He has no idea who he is.