It wasn’t too long ago that it seemed like we may never see a new David Lynch film. The Twin Peaks co-creator and visionary surrealist behind films like Eraserhead, The Elephant Man and Blue Velvet kicked off the 21st century with Mulholland Dr., a nightmarish neo-noir that garnered an Oscar nomination for best director and has since been recognized as one of the greatest films of all time.
But things seemed to slow down for Lynch. By 2016, his only subsequent feature was 2006’s Inland Empire, a three-hour experiment that could best be described as “for Lynch fans only,” and he seemed more focused on visual art, selling signature coffee blends and creating weird YouTube videos about making quinoa.
Then came 2017’s Twin Peaks: The Return, a follow-up to his classic ’90s TV show. Directed entirely by Lynch, this season of television played like an 18-hour movie, as experimental and formally daring as any work of art released last decade. Lynch seemed to be back in full form, and on Jan. 20 (Lynch’s 74th birthday), Netflix surprised everyone by dropping his new short film, What Did Jack Do?
To be clear, the film isn’t exactly “new.” It screened briefly in 2017 at an art museum in Paris and, with the exception of one festival screening in New York, has been impossible to see ever since. Suddenly, this mysterious little film by one of the greatest living filmmakers is available to all Canadian Netflix subscribers.
In addition to writing, directing and editing the film, Lynch stars as a character known only as “Detective.” He meets in a train station diner with a capuchin monkey named Jack. The two engage in a conversation that quickly becomes an interrogation by Lynch’s detective as he tries to determine ... something? The detective seems to be trying to figure out whether the besuited primate has been hanging around with chickens, turkeys or other farm animals. Jack speaks in a slow, slurred voice that echoes through a digital haze (it’s unclear who’s responsible for voicing Jack; the credits simply state “starring Jack Cruz as himself ”).
Their conversation contains the men- ace and pitter-patter rhythm of great film noir interrogation scenes, but rather than unravelling a mystery, the film employs Lynch’s signature dream logic. The piece does arrive at a conclusion that has a sort of satisfaction, but it only makes sense in the way that a nightmare makes sense while it’s happening, only to dissolve into half-remembered nonsense upon waking.
Like The Return, What Did Jack Do? is a reminder of just how entertaining Lynch can be in front of the camera. His rare appearances as an actor always inject a film or TV show with his strange, often confusing sense of humour, and Jack certainly has its share of laughs. Like in Eraserhead and portions of The Return, he uses black-and-white photography and murky sound design to create an eerie atmosphere. But while those projects used that atmosphere for dread, Jack uses it to punctuate its jokes and non-sequiturs.
Ultimately, this short is a welcome addition to Lynch’s filmic comeback. Alongside last year’s The Irishman and Marriage Story, it’s also a reminder of how Netflix can act as a platform for celebrated filmmakers to release idiosyncratic movies, at least when Ted Sarandos decides to use his power for good rather than evil.
Published in Volume 74, Number 15 of The Uniter (January 23, 2020)