The movies haven’t gone to hell – they’ve gone to HBO.
Barry Levinson, who used to be prestige-Oscar bait, finds TV a more natural habitat today, and he never made a more shamblingly naturalistic masterpiece than You Don’t Know Jack. Al Pacino attains a new greatness as the Detroit right-to-death doc Jack Kevorkian. It’s his most taut work, not a showy explosion but emotionally implosive, a concentration of energy forging a heart as hard as it is humane. Bet on his Emmy, alongside Claire Danes for HBO’s Temple Grandin.
His Jack is a paradox, selfless and selfish, using and abusing his few friends, a spoiled ascetic as deaf to social cues as the autistic Temple Grandin. He tells his first assisted-suicide patient, “By providing your organs to more useful citizens, you will be benefiting society immeasurably!” Tauntingly, jauntily macabre, he exhibits grisly allegorical war paintings, and touts carbon monoxide like it was a life-enhancing inebriant. “I can tell you as a pathologist, gas inhalation always leaves the deceased with a rosy, colorful afterglow!” When he tells his first soon-to-be-suicide, “It’s not too late, my dear. You can stop right now. You wouldn’t offend me. You wouldn’t offend me,” he turns his head exactly like a praying mantis regarding its prey, and also like the kindliest priest who ever assisted a soul to a better place.
When Jack notices a new wig on his helpmeet sister (Brenda Vaccaro, never bigger, never better), he doesn’t get it that a compliment is in order. The lawyer she finds for Jack (Danny Huston, an actor as alert as his half-sis Anjelica, dad John, or grandpa Walter) definitely gets it. This guy is slick as deer guts on a glass doorknob. Deftly, in seemingly random, actually artfully orchestrated moments, Levinson shows how all three were crucial in making Jack “the most famous doctor in America.” The crusader killer’s flinty will, the sister’s pragmatic emotional caretaking, the lawyer’s self-promoting, Jack-promoting media circusmastery – they helped to change the world.
“Courtrooms are theaters of conscience,” Jack’s lawyer explains. “If you show your patients pleading for your help, if we show the gut-wrenching emotions of it all, that’s your golden ticket. No jury will convict you.” Jack makes his whole life a mobile courtroom, stubbornly refusing to cut his conscience to fit anybody’s sense of propriety. And his patients’ emotions are wrenching as hell. Levinson makes the death’s-door linejumpers come alive, in scenes that are searing without being exploitative. The patients’ video interviews, shot by Jack’s sister, pack the authority of cinematic innocence. Her camera pans jerkily; her light casts stark, evocative shadows of sufferers’ faces. Ineptly, she places a light reflection above a dying woman’s head, like an inadvertent halo.
Levinson’s poetry of the banal has never looked more artful. For him, heaven is found reflected in a mud puddle, with Jack bicycling past, oblivious to the universe outside his head. A couple takes a last walk through the woods, savors a last kiss in a car, the clinch glimpsed through a rainspattered windshield reflecting the forest. Cut to the needle going in. Levinson captures moments that feel eternal because they’re so ordinary. It’s as affecting as reality TV, only not a moment is wasted. And of course it’s more real. Except for a last scene as jarringly inconclusive as There Will Be Blood’s, it’s the best movie Levinson has made since his mainstream movie reign ended with Wag the Dog in 1997.
David Thomson called Al Pacino “our greatest actor,” but if you haven’t seen You Don’t Know Jack, you don’t know Al.