Dir. David Lynch; David Lynch, Jack Cruz
[3 out of 4 stars]
A homicide detective sits at a table in a room above a train station and asks questions about a recent murder. The capuchin sitting across the table from him equivocates. That’s about all that happens in David Lynch’s bizarre What Did Jack Do? (2017), a discomforting short film that substitutes his usual nightmarish quality for an off-kilter comedy. Viewers will likely find Lynch’s short either amusing or alienating (or both), and I think that’s exactly what he’s going for.
What Did Jack Do? is short and sweet. We never leave the sparse room above the industrial train station. The interrogation between the detective (Lynch) and the monkey (Jack Cruz) makes up nearly the entire seventeen minutes, leaving myriad questions about the outside world, like “how did this monkey come to talk?” Due to the sparsity of action and movement, What Did Jack Do? often feels like one of the low-budget noir attempts of the fifties and sixties – Kubrick’s mildly satisfying sophomoric thriller, Killer’s Kiss (1955), for example. But Lynch seems to be deliberately invoking those B-movie noirs, throwing every possible element he can into the mix in seventeen minutes: we get the hard-boiled detective, the uncooperative suspect, the labyrinthine murder plot, the femme fatale, the love triangle, the industrial setting, etc., and it’s all laid out clearly for us.
The simplicity of the setting and cinematography – a steady, grainy black and white, shot/counter shot format, with a few close-ups – allows Lynch to focus on the dialogue and acting, and this is where the short really shines. Lynch plays the detective in classic, hard-boiled noir style, leaning back and forward in his chair, pointing accusingly at Jack, and alternately raising his voice and eyebrows. The script sticks for the most part to tropes from noir films, shot through with animal idioms and puns: “There’s an elephant in the room. I’d like you to start talking turkey.” The whole dialogue is a network of one-liners, each delivered with melodramatic gravity. “I know why the chicken crossed the road,” says the detective, and we feel as though we’re on the brink of the big breakthrough – the twist of the knife that explains the whole mess.
But it’s the apparently faltering delivery that makes the dialogue feel so strange. Each line comes, disappointingly, to no real conclusion, and Lynch draws out these exchanges to an uncomfortable length. Jack takes time – too much time – to respond to the detective’s questions. I’m reminded here of Eraserhead (1977), where even the normal elements of conversations (introducing oneself, for example) cause the characters to hesitate, apparently torturing the characters for eons. “Takes two to tango, Jack,” says the detective, and Jack hesitates before responding: “Oh, so now we’re dancing.” The sense of urgency created by the setting – remarks about cops in the train station, the whistles of trains – clashes with these drawn-out pauses, leaving us in a state of anxiety, that dream-like feeling of needing to get away but remaining rooted to the spot.
The real joy of What Did Jack Do? is its length. Short films, like short stories, are often viewed as stepping-stones to longer works, the thing you have to get out of the way as a student before you can get on to the “real” stuff. Lynch, of course, defies this prejudice, and is one of a small number of filmmakers who not only made short films early in his career, but also continued to make them throughout his career. These shorts are always odd and often deal explicitly with absurdism – take the two-minute long shorts Absurda (2007) or Absurd Encounter with Fear (1967) – and they are brilliant precisely because he is able to instill all the themes from his feature films into such a condensed format.
There are many “Lynchian” themes in this short: the strange human-animal hybrids, the performance, the focus on depravity and deformity. I wouldn’t quite call What Did Jack Do? “absurdist,” however, even though Lynch invokes this word at the beginning of the film. Certainly, there are no explanations given and the viewer is dropped into a world where animals talk, but there is a certain logic to the narrative: if animals can talk and sing, then they can lie and murder as well. In this way, Lynch’s film is “surrealist” in the Kafkaesque rather than the Dalí/Buñuel sense, as opposed to works like Mulholland Drive (2001) or early shorts like The Alphabet (1969), which actively defy interpretation. In What Did Jack Do?, the bizarre interaction is neither frightening nor truly disturbing, just somehow off. You’ll likely end up thinking about the short all week. Maybe Jack will even show up in your dreams.
My only real complaint is that watching What Did Jack Do? is slightly less enjoyable than talking about it. In fact, the short often feels like it was made for other directors rather than for lay viewers, more of a cinematic gimmick than a serious attempt. There are so many animal puns and noir elements that the film feels a bit overdetermined, like a joke video essay on film noir. But put aside those feelings and you’re left with a true oddball short – perhaps not as tight as his other short films; if anything, I’d have made it even shorter – but a decent introduction to Lynch’s particular brand of filmmaking and a worthwhile foray into the realm of the weird.