It’s difficult not to think about Tom Waits‘ song “What’s He Building?” from Mule Variations while watching Matthew Mahler‘s (co-written with Ross Mahler) What Jack Built. This is both a compliment to the tone set by Timothy J. Cox‘s performance as Jack and the tension created by the filmmaker slowly revealing hidden details as the character moves from basement/garage workspace to the woods outside. But it’s also a big reason for why I feel the film doesn’t quite succeed. I try not to let budgetary constraints factor into my experience watching a movie, but it’s hard to ignore them here. The lighting is too bright for the horror/thriller atmosphere and the props simply aren’t anachronistic enough to dig into the desperation necessary at every level.
There’s a distinct possibility that Mahler wasn’t looking to create a sort of post-apocalyptic world where monsters roam the earth, but details make me believe he did. The weird coat on a string and pulley system, the steampunk-esque magnifying goggles Cox wears, and the disheveled chaos of the workshop all lean towards something being not quite of our own reality. But everything seems brand new: circuit boards, Apple keyboard, tools, etc. The keyboard proves it’s not set in 1985 like the camcorder system timestamps so that mix of old and new is a blatant aesthetic choice. Why then is the wood so clean and new as though Jack left home and went to Home Depot? Is the threat outside not as dangerous as we assume?
Mood is key to a thriller like this and I found too much of the film pristine. Maybe the wood could have been salvaged from furniture or the garage walls. Maybe the circuitry could have visibly expelled dust when Cox blew upon it. The world’s simply too much like the one out my window and it’s therefore hard to invest in the creature Jack hopes to capture. All I could really hope for was that he was insane and slowly devolving into a bundle of nerves for each cigar to dangle from. That’s not saying something isn’t stalking him, but it could be a rabbit he’s blown out of proportion. Even so, we must also see the evil he sees, not just his enthusiasm to defeat it.
In the end that’s What Jack Built is: a document of process set to electronic beats. Cox embraces the left-of-sanity persona, injecting the performance with as much glee as fear, and the Mahlers’ idea is sound as far as getting us to want to move to our seat’s edge and discover what’s actually going on. The final product is cool too—a cobbled together contraption that works. But it needs more wear and tear to look formidable; less like a Science Olympiad assignment. Elevate the visual style to the level of the concept and this can be a great mood piece making a walk through the woods a reluctant decision. Right now the care and focus given to every discarded object merged into one lacks a worthwhile existence.