A detective and a Capuchin monkey sit in a dark room. The detective takes a drag on his cigarette. “So,” he begins, “we meet in a train station, Jack. You know anything about birds?”
It gets weirder from there.
“What Did Jack Do?” doesn’t make much sense. Yet director David Lynch (“Twin Peaks”) and sense don’t exactly go hand in hand. Lynch is almost entirely concerned with mood, and tends to avoid story conventions like exposition, plot or characterization. His meticulously woven atmospheres are completely unpredictable and utterly inexplicable, and are usually deemed “Lynchian.” If someone tried the (probably impossible) task of defining the term, it’d probably be something like “dark, confused Americana.”
From the demonic convenience store in “Twin Peaks” to the monster infested diner in “Mulholland Drive,” Lynch twists familiar, American cultural staples to brew terrifying yet endlessly mysterious dreamscapes that linger in one’s mind like the craziest of nightmares. In a Lynchian film, one has little idea what is happening, but knows enough to be afraid.
Anyway, back to the monkey and the detective. Their conversation begins coldly, and they exchange American phrases like “Birds of a feather flock together,” “There’s an elephant in the room,” “I’d like you to start talking turkey,” and “I know why the chicken crossed the road.” These don’t come off as cliches, though. The black and white cinematography, smoke-filled air, clattering unseen trains and terror stricken monkey give these phrases a simmering, uncertain edge.
Viewers may not see beneath the artifice of the dialogue, but these characters sure do. This is mostly due to Lynch’s double performance. He voices Jack, using an unsettling deepfake where his mouth is merged with the monkey’s, with haggard desperation and plays the detective with a completely straight, calculating air.
While the conversation swirls from idiom to idiom, it becomes clear that the detective knows something incriminating about Jack, and Jack is terrified. While most of the dialogue is firmly uncanny, there are certain moments where emotion punches through in a raw and startling way. “There was blood everywhere,” Jack says at one point. While he’s referencing something completely silly, the way this line is delivered makes it seem like there’s more to this story than one would originally think. When the detective asks, completely out of the blue, “Are you now or have you ever been a card-carrying member of the Communist Party?” and the monkey grimaces in horror, one wants to both laugh and shiver. That’s the genius of Lynch.
“It’s all like a crazy nightmare to me now,” Jack says toward the end. While it’s clear “What Did Jack Do?” shouldn’t be taken at face value, it being a dream gives the insanity a shade of cold reality. Whoever dreamt up this nightmarish train station and its twisted Americana motifs has a distinct view of American life.
If it’s the detective’s dream, what does it say that he views his suspect as a squirming monkey? If it’s Jack’s dream, why has he imagined himself this way? What is the significance of Sally the Orangutan and Tootatoban the rooster? These questions are up to the viewer, if they even matter. Maybe it’s just meant to be funny and means nothing.
Whatever one thinks, though, it’s clear that nobody else makes a film like David Lynch.