2013 // USA // Henry Barrial // November 18, 2013 // Digital Theatrical Projection (Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema)
[Full Disclosure: I spoke briefly with director Henry Barrial both before and after the November 18, 2013 screening of The House That Jack Built at the St. Louis International Film Festival. The conversation was friendly, and generally positive about the film and his prior feature, Pig.]
There’s more than a little bit of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II in director Henry Barrial’s latest feature The House That Jack Built, and not merely because it concerns the intersection of family and crime in New York City. The House’s blend of slightly madcap family melodrama and gritty, street-level violence is virtually a tradition in American indie cinema, and certainly miles from the operatic tone of Francis Ford Coppola’s celebrated series. Yet The House is, in some ways, a complementary tale to The Godfather. Michael Corleone strives (and ultimately fails) to isolate his family from the violent malefactions of his Mafia empire, even as that business swells into a bloodstained, all-devouring behemoth. The protagonist of Barrial’s feature is similarly concerned with maintaining a sharp delineation between this illicit pursuits and his extended clan, but both Jack (Guiding Light star E. J. Bonilla) and the film around him are overwhelmingly focused on the family side of the equation.
For Caribbean-Latino Bronx native Jack, his modest business—commanding a cadre of streetcorner dope slingers, with a weary little bodega serving as his legitimate front—is but a means to an end. That goal is an unexpectedly warm-hearted one: to be the man who keeps his sprawling, chaotic family together and cared for in an apartment complex he owns. It’s a remarkably domestic, even conservative aim for a drug pusher. However, The House makes clear in its prelude and epilogue that Jack’s ideals have been informed by nostalgia for his childhood. In that gauzy era, motion and laughter were packed into his family’s flat as densely as the relatives. The House is therefore a film about a man with a sentimental vision for his life and the lives of his family members, and about how reality fails to conform to his burnished expectations. Although Jack’s territorial clashes with another, more powerful drug lord (Fidel Vicioso) are a pivotal component of the film’s story, The House is much more concerned with the unraveling of Jack’s soft-focus dream of familial bliss.
Given the temperament of Jack’s relatives, that dream was perhaps a delusional venture from the start. His father Carlos (Jack Herrera) is a belligerent drunk, and perpetually at war with his exasperated mother Martha (Saundra Santiago), who frets about the family’s standing in the neighborhood. Jack’s brother Richie (Leo Minaya) is a natural doormat, struggling in vain to keep his restless wife Rosa (Flor De Liz Perez) home with their newborn child. Brother Manny (Desmin Borges) is inexplicably perusing and stealing from brother Hector’s (Javier Muñoz) designer wardrobe. Much to Jack’s consternation, his semi-out sister Nadia (Rosal Colon) regularly has her girlfriend over for the night. Meanwhile, Jack’s own sweetheart Lily (Melissa Fumero) is talking marriage, which raises his hackles. Despite his devotion to family, Jack seems to have a kneejerk distaste for commitment. In short, every aspect of Jack’s fantasy is falling short in some respect, and The House is essentially a tragedy—albeit a humorous one—about his efforts to keep everything from falling apart. In addition to Coppola, there’s a bit of Shakespeare in there, not to mention Elia Kazan’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, and Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married.
For viewers familiar with director Barrial’s previous feature, the mind-bending science-fiction thriller Pig, The House will doubtlessly feel like an emphatic swing in a quite different direction. Barrial’s latest is as sincere, soapy, and character-driven as Pig was moody, enigmatic, and removed. The director has acknowledged that The House is shaped in part by his own early life as a Cuban-American in Miami, which can be observed in the film’s specific character details and in its broad portraiture of a close-knit but combative Latino clan. Doubtlessly, The House also owes a debt to the life experiences of the late indie filmmaker Joseph Vasquez, who originally penned the film’s screenplay some twenty years ago. The Puerto Rican Vasquez worked autobiographical details from his hard-bitten South Bronx childhood into many of his works, most famously in his 1991 "long night of the soul" comedy-drama, Hangin’ With the Homeboys. The House certainly feels indebted to Vasquez’s life story, although Barrial’s on location shooting in the Bronx and his use of local Caribbean-Latino actors are just as vital to the film’s vivid sense of place. (As in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen, the apartment complex is not merely backdrop, but a motif and even a character in its own right.)
As with any film about a garrulous, dysfunctional family, The House flirts with cartoonishness in its depiction of Jack’s quirky, problem-ridden relatives. Moreover, in its determination to present the ugly consequences of Jack’s criminal activities, the film at times strays into histrionics and downright unbelievable plot swerves. Yet Barrial’s film rises above these flaws, in part due to the director’s capable juggling of the film’s myriad tones, but also thanks to the engaging presence of Bonilla. The actor's knee-weakening looks and swagger (the latter slightly tinged with diffidence) captivate whenever he is on screen. Bonilla’s performance and the film’s general preference for Jack’s point of view create a sharp portrait of a compromised but essentially benevolent man who is unable to accept that some things are beyond his control—and rather narcissistically denies the agency of his loved ones as a result. This tends to balance out the film’s comparatively thin characterization of the rest of Jack’s family, who are often distilled down to one or two traits. While there is nothing particularly revelatory in Barrial’s approach to storytelling or in Luca Del Puppo’s camera work, The House That Jack Built is still a rich slice of droll family drama, one that offers a compelling depiction of the breakdown and adjustment of a man’s sanguine expectations.