Review: JACK & DIANE, A Dark Romance With Little Bite

Ben Umstead, East Coast Editor
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 Twitch 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 & Diane had 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.

Ultimately, 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 & Diane was 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. 
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