The practice of transposing horror elements for the use of visual
metaphors and nightmares in a film which is more or less a drama isn't a
new thing. We at ScreenAnarchy come across films that aren't quite full on
horror yet dip a toe into the bloody pool nearly every festival we
travel to. Now how about an already minimalist drama dipping a toe in?
The choice of how a filmmaker commits to these tropes, visual tricks and
panache is where their film will rise or fall. Unfortunately Bradley
Rust Gray's coming-of-age romance falls hard, and quite early on too,
making it a bit of a slog to get through.
It's even tougher to
take because the misguided use of the horror isn't really what brings
the film to a halt -- it's largely in part due to the complete lack of
chemistry between leads Juno Temple and Riley Keough. When Temple's
Diane, a wispy pixie of a girl, encounters Keough's tomboy Jack,
brooding in her friend's clothing store, either two things should happen
if these two are to fall in love. One: Sparks fly, passion ensues, and
we should feel that pulsating from each frame of the film from that
moment on. Or two: it's a slow-build, perhaps nuanced, understated. The
film does play out in a way that wants to be low key and understated
(like Gray's previous films), letting the awkwardness of young love
permeate the screen. What should feel awkward (or even dangerous) though feels deflated,
again largely due to the un-simpatico Temple and Keough. It is then that
as much as the horror imagery feels inconsequential to Jack and Diane
falling in love, it is this romance which feels disconnected. This is
all the more disappointing since the werewolf-esque stuff conjured up,
and quite effectively so in its own isolated moments (blood, guts,
scabby monster suit and all), is clearly a metaphor for Diane's
insatiable desire. Great ideas then don't always line up.
So does all this make Jack & Diane
an unwatchable mess? No, far from it. If it were I'd be able to dismiss
it and forget it with far less frustration than I am. As it is, Gray is
a filmmaker with some real talent, and someone who I have admired since
his previous film The Exploding Girl. His naturalistic
touches have worked before, and there are moments here which get so
close to loveliness, sadness, that awkwardness, and a near intangible,
and thus, all the more tragic desperation. It is that he seems so
unwilling to embrace what he's reaching for in both the horror and drama
that becomes the most frustrating aspect of viewing Jack & Diane.
At the same time the film yearns to take place in the New York of the
early 80s, in all it's everyday chaos and punk-angst, instead of today's
kind of laid-back melting pot. I can't but help shake the feeling that
if Jack & Dianehad been shot in the lower east side
of 30 years ago on smudgy 16mm film stock, fully embracing its dark
side, we would have a much better film on our hands. Granted, it'd be a
totally different beast. Now it isn't to say this film is without
merit. The movie features some intimate urban cinematography by Anne
Misawa plus title animation, nightmarish interludes and transitions by
the Brothers Quay. It's stop-motion wizardry that is just as good here
as it is in their own films -- as separate from this movie as it feels,
the hair braids making up the title is an ingenious idea.
my hope for Gray is that he continues to reach, continues to play in
and explore new territory, because I believe in him as a storyteller,
and know he has some special stories to tell. It's sad for me then
because Jack & Dianewas sometimes so very close to being one of those stories.
Jack & Diane opens tomorrow in New York and Los Angeles, and is currently available via Video On Demand services. This review was originally published during the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival where the film premiered.