Domestic disarray codifies Henry Barrial’s The House That Jack Built, a new-age Godfather tale that demonstrates the pitfalls of mixing family and business under one roof. Unbeknownst to his loved ones, Jack (E.J. Bonilla) has been a drug dealer for most of his young life but is now in the decompression phase. He’s earned enough money to buy and manage an apartment complex in South Bronx, a dicey borough of New York City. Since deals are now conducted by his associates, Jack no longer has to worry about face-to-face danger (or so he thinks), making it safe to move his entire family into his newly purchased fortress. But what Jack isn’t prepared for is the family dynamic he either ignored, or failed to see, as a child.
Each of his siblings have their own issues, and his mother and father can’t last a night together without a volcanic argument erupting. It doesn’t help matters that Jack’s grandmother, who he remembered as affectionate and always willing to please, now speaks her mind with viscous scorn. Hit daily with family drama, Jack distances himself from his beautiful girlfriend Lily (Melissa Fumero), whose desire for marriage only reminds Jack how badly he doesn’t want to repeat a cycle of familial pandemonium. While we empathize with Jack’s hardships, liking him as a person is a different animal. He’s homophobic, racist, egotistical, condescending, hypocritical, and narrow-minded with his approach to nearly everything life throws his way. Jack wants to construct the perfect family instead of accept the dysfunctional one he’s got. Like many films I’ve seen this year at the Los Angeles Festival, Barrial errs by redeeming his protagonist too easily. The film lacks a scene where Jack’s entire family acknowledges and calls him out for what he is: a drug dealer whose very presence is a life-threatening one. Instead, Jack escapes the film with more happiness than guilt.
Not since Real Women Have Curves has there been such a thorough investigation into the complexities of Hispanic-American culture. Parents Carlos and Martha (John Herrera and Saundra Santiago) are assimilated, but only to a point. It’s never stated, but it’s assumed that their Catholic religion is one of the key factors keeping them from divorcing. Jack himself holds dearly to his conservative values and makes sure that everyone in his household shares them as well (he goes ballistic when he discovers that his sister is a lesbian). His strict adherence to “the old ways” ends up causing his family a great deal of pain by film’s end. Barrial’s critique of the machismo pressures placed on men in the Hispanic community is streamlined throughout The House That Jack Built. I can only hope that audiences imbibe Barrial’s poignant message that traditionalism, which includes the biblical “eye for an eye” mentality, destroys more than facilitates a family.
Barrial’s homage to Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece often dives too deeply into the pool of sensationalism, but I understand the difficulty of restraint when juggling various themes and character threads. The performances, amplified to such a passionate yet firmly real degree, are the bricks that keep The House That Jack Built intact. Scored exquisitely thanks to stirring violin instrumentals and rustic guitar strumming, The House That Jack Built takes us on a majestic journey of crime, family drama, and redemption. The film is currently a part of the Narrative Feature Competition at LAFF this year. Check out the trailer below: