A slow-burn indie character drama, showcasing an impressive performance from Rory Culkin, this shades into psycho-horror territory – it even has what seems to be a zombie attack near the end – and gets detoured by a tangle of backstory revelations and twists that feel a little second-hand. Suppressed memories of child abuse and characters who turn out to be not really there have been overdone in 21st century psycho-drama, and even writer-director Thomas Dekker – better known as an actor (John Connor in The Sarah Connor Chronicles) – tends to throw them away.
Ponytailed Los Angeles magazine writer Jack Thurlowe (Culkin), who skypes often with a pregnant partner (Britt Robertson) who has her own family crises ongoing, is told that his parents have been in a fatal car crash … and returns home to find his mother (Lin Shaye) quixotically mad with grief and reminders of his father (voiced on tapes by Matt Craven) all over the house (including stashes of audio and video cassettes that eventually cast some light on gaps in Jack’s childhood memory. Jack’s best friend Shanda (Daveigh Chase), a small-town lesbian, is supportive and he see-saws between being buttoned-down and oddly academic about his situation and literally letting his hair down to open up, especially with teen gay pin-up guy Duncan (Louis Hunter) who lives next door. While coping with grief, Jack gets infobytes from the tapes – which reveal that Jack once had a twin brother who died in infancy, a mystery which is never really solved (explanations are embedded in scenes we know are hallucinations), and that he has also forgotten being molested by neighbours as a child, though he still has spells of sleepwalking and sexual confusion.
Jack is the kind of guy who overthinks things and argues with himself, sometimes literalising people to have rows with, but can also be perceptive, thoughtful and sincere. A tiny little scene with a Christian animal shelter worker (Natasha Lyonne) seems to set up a vituperative speech, but turns redemptive – though the film mostly gets darker after that as the protagonist goes deeper and more alarmingly into fugues of grief, sometimes imagining crimes which presumably he himself commits (the murder of his parents’ dog, for instance) or that he is being attacked by physical spectres from his past. Culkin gives it a touch of humour, which helps because the show is mostly unrelentingly grim, but manages to be scary at times – he makes closing a laptop to end a skype conversation an act of emotional violence – even if he is in the end primarily a victim of himself.
Dekker is connected enough to sign up an impressive range of (mostly female) players for supporting roles – including Nikki Reed in a tiny bit as Shandra’s girlfriend. The title echoes Ted Lewis’s Jack’s Return Home, the novel on which Get Carter is based – and there is a very slight echo of the earlier story in the way a protagonist processes grief and guilt in confronting figures from his past, though there are here mostly memories or phantasms.