Though the true-crime character study “Jack” has the nerve to call notorious Austrian killer-turned-literary-sensation Jack Unterweger by his first name, writer-director Elisabeth Scharang never lets audiences get close enough to feel such familiarly. Unterweger was and remains an enigma, elevated to celebrity status and acclaimed for his underworld-plunging poetry and fiction before being charged with the murders of 11 prostitutes in Austria and abroad. Did he commit the crimes, or was the reformed criminal unfairly typecast for earlier transgressions? No one could reasonably answer such questions of the basis of Scharang’s impressionistic portrait, a poisonous psycho-thriller guilty of distorting the facts for artistic effect without creating any semblance of a relatable human being in the process.
Surely, it would help to be Austrian — or at least relatively well versed in Unterweger’s case — in order to appreciate what Scharang is trying to do, and though festival bookings at Locarno and beyond will get the off-putting project some traction, international audiences will struggle to make sense of the jagged fragments she presents. Like a mirror smashed upon the floor, the film serves up disconnected glimpses and insights into Unterweger’s character (played as an ultra-creepy ladies man by “Revanche’s” Johannes Krisch), withholding or outright distorting details we might need to form a useful picture of the man.
Clearly intending “Jack” to serve as a revisionist interpretation of the character, rather than an introduction, Scharang withholds even the most basic exposition, daring those with preconceptions to like the freakshow that follows. From the opening scene, we’re plunged into a world of feral energy and moral trespass, as super-creepy Unterweger and his troll-faced g.f. (Sarah Viktoria Frick) rob a gas station. Cut to a sleazy hotel, where they unwind with a sex scene whose danger-loaded, lopsided power dynamic suggests one of those Tex Avery wolves getting ready to devour a teasing little piglet. We next see the couple picking up and intimidating a young woman, after which editor Alarich Lenz jump-cuts to an upsetting closeup of her naked corpse bound to a tree in the middle of the woods.
The movie repeatedly posits that women found Jack irresistible, but there’s nothing concrete onscreen to back it, unless your idea of sex appeal involves sunken cheeks, chiclet teeth, Ed Hardy tattoos and wiry, unconvincing wigs — which comprise Frisch’s look as the character, with a thick layer of pancake makeup troweled on for good measure. Unterweger’s pimp-like wardrobe (white suits, gold chains, open collars) projects confidence, but also raises questions as to whether it’s all a mask for some deeper insecurity.
It would be fascinating to burrow into the character’s subconscious, though this isn’t the project for it. “Jack” producer Dieter Pochlatko did so once before in his 1988 documentary, “Purgatory or the Journey to Jail,” while Scharang (who actually set out to make a docu) found that fiction allowed her to focus on the character, whose eventual suicide would have forced her to work around him otherwise. The story she tells here may have been invented, but it’s informed by details from his actual case, including the mother (Inge Maux) who abandoned him and the editor (Birgit Minichmayr) who insisted he report on the criminal world he’d tried to escape.
Though no one seems certain of his guilt or innocence, knowing Unterweger’s eventual fate serves to put the rest of the film in context. Therefore, what might seem like a spoiler would have actually made a more effective opening, communicating the tragic dimension from the outset: After being found guilty for a series of murders, Unterweger hanged himself in prison at age 44. Evidently, the world decided that reform hadn’t been possible in prison: “Once a murderer, always a murderer.” They’d given him a chance, then released him after 15 years (his sentence is here compressed to two basic scenes: screwing a guard and writing his poetry), at which point his behavior becomes too sketchy and inconsistent to analyze.
Granted, Frisch has a tough job, directed as if he’s playing one of those nihilistic Ryan Gosling roles seen in Nicolas Winding Refn’s recent movies (“Drive,” “Only God Forgives,” complete with hat-tip wardrobe and lighting choices), when something closer to Tom Hardy’s explosive “Bronson” performance would have proven more enthralling. The repellent-looking leading man is completely unconvincing as a wild 24-year-old in the early scenes, and can barely pass for 44 in the rest of the film. He’s an ancient, inscrutable skeleton and hardly someone with whom we can easily sympathize.
Still, without going so far as to imply he was innocent, Scharang wants to invite our skepticism. She seems equally interested in untangling what it is about such a character that fascinates us so — which would be far more effective if he fascinated us at all. At every step, the movie exploits the tension of potential danger: He could kill again; after all, he had before. Many murderers attract letter-writing fans in prison, though Unterweger “earned” the attention via his literary output and found support from an unusually high-placed patron (Corinna Harfouch). Whether or not we identify with her, Scharang seems to, and through this character — who opines, “He shows a woman that he desires her” — we start to understand an attraction the film is otherwise ill suited to explain.