David Lynch’s new short What Did Jack Do? has a simple premise on its surface. Netflix spells it out in a single short sentence: “A detective interrogates a monkey who is suspected of murder.” But the investigation, which takes place in a small room in a locked-down train station, takes some wild turns. The chain-smoking detective (played by Lynch himself) slowly discovers that Jack Cruz, the primate sitting in front of him (who speaks with a nasal drawl that also sounds a lot like Lynch), was likely responsible for a crime of passion involving his lover, a chicken named Toototabon.
Lynch is obviously no stranger to surreal crime dramas. Even in its limited scope, What Did Jack Do? picks up many of the same thematic threads that Twin Peaks played throughout three seasons. Jack and the detective have a long, cryptic discussion about morality and love, shrouded by the backdrop of sinister forces acting beyond their control. But where Twin Peaks and even Blue Velvet used their central crimes as metaphors for the rot of American society, What Did Jack Do? is a little more lighthearted.
Part of that’s just due to the setup—a monkey murderer is inherently funnier than a serial killer possessed by an otherworldly force of pure evil—but credit is also due to the script itself, which Lynch packs full of sideways jokes and gleeful absurdities. Jack and the detective, for example, spend a while bantering about communism, the Easter bunny, and the trustworthiness of orangutans. The short film doesn’t have the tone of a parody—at least not outwardly—but it does poke holes in the self-seriousness of a whole generation of uber-popular cop dramas, which cast officers of the law as superheroes who stand in the way of all of society’s ills.
Although the characters talk in the unmistakable patter of police procedurals, their conversation is littered with misplaced idioms, fractured non-sequiturs, and baffling descriptions of inter-species violence. Watching the exchange feels like listening to someone describe an old Law and Order episode from memory; the basic beats are there, but the connective tissue is lost to time, rendering the story silly and strange.
The film doesn’t necessarily make you root for Jack—who, it’s made clear, has some emotional issues—but when he’s apprehended at the end, you don’t feel the cathartic rush that commonly comes from watching criminals get caught in police shows. Lynch doesn’t necessarily present any reason that Jack should have gotten away with murder, but because of the disjointed dialogue and unsettling atmosphere, there’s not really any reason he shouldn’t have, either. In spite of how inscrutable some of Lynch’s work can be, most of it has clear heroes and villains. What Did Jack Do? doesn’t, which makes you wonder if justice really has been served—or if justice is even possible.
One of the recurring questions in the interviews that Lynch has given over his decades as a filmmaker is the degree to which dreams have influenced his work. It’s an understandable one on some level, given that even his most plot-forward works are full of inexplicable imagery: a severed ear in an open field, a blue box that holds a portal to another dimension, an FBI agent turned into a machine that looks like a tea kettle. Lynch often responds that while he doesn’t get his ideas from dreams, he does have an affection for the idea of “dream logic.” Consequently, he’s made decades-worth of free-associative, hard-to-explain work that’s baffling, surreal, and otherworldly.
Like a dream, it’s often hard to explain a person’s motivations at a given moment, or how you even ended up in a particular setting. What Did Jack Do? is a part of that tradition, but it employs that approach differently than he often does. It’s the sort of dream that has you waking up laughing, questioning how your brain can conjure up such bizarre imagery. Good luck explaining it to your friends.