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‘Jackals’ Review: A Suspenseful and Smart Thriller, Until It Needs It Most

Masked cultists crash a family reunion, and blood flows freely.
By  · Published on September 1st, 2017

Masked cultists crash a family reunion, and blood flows freely.

Home invasion films, when done well, will always be more terrifying than movies about ghosts or monsters. The former is a real possibility in this crazy, messed up world while the latter exist only in our imagination. That gives these kind of films an automatic leg up over other thriller, and it’s an advantage they can either run with or waste.

Jackals runs with it in some very interesting directions, for a while at least, and while it gives up on both its characters and its viewers in the third act it’s a fun, suspenseful ride until then.

The film opens with an 80s-set first-person POV as someone approaches a house at night, finds a hidden key, and enters. They move through the home ending up in a bedroom where a couple sleeps unaware of their nocturnal visitor who rifles through the drawers for cash before stabbing the pair to death. He approaches a teenage girl’s bedroom next, but when she awakes we discover that the intruder is no stranger. He’s her brother.

We jump to two young men whose road trip is cut short when a pair of masked men in a van attack and abduct one of them. They bring him to a remote house where his family awaits, and we learn that he’s been kidnapped in the hope of de-programming him from his new life in a cult. Justin (Ben Sullivan) is tied to a chair and subjected to pleas from his father (Johnathon Schaech), mother (Deborah Kara Unger), brother (Nick Roux), girlfriend (Chelsea Ricketts), and the master de-programmer himself, Jimmy Levine (Stephen Dorff). As day turns to night and dozens of masked cult members surround the house the family quickly realizes that they’re the ones in need of rescue.

Director Kevin Greutert has worked as an editor on numerous horror films, and as director he’s delivered some thrills with the likes of Jessabelle, Saw VI, and Saw 3D: The Final Chapter, but for most of its running time anyway Jackals is his best work yet.

Jared Rivet‘s script sets up an interesting scenario with an engaging mix of characters, and the opening keeps viewers on edge as we get our bearings and realize the stakes and players involved. Levine is an ex-Marine who exudes confidence and ability, and while the family isn’t as strong they feel real in their reactions to what unfolds. Mom is a drunk, the brother is “over” Justin’s troubles, and dad just wants his son back. As the cult members outside make their presence known — and show how serious they are by gutting one of the protagonists — the remaining hopeful survivors show some smarts in how they fight back and work together to stay alive.

The one gap in their collective intelligence is in the trust and faith they have in Justin, but it’s an understandable weakness as he’s someone they’ve loved. Less agreeable are the character beats and decisions that come in the film’s final act. Previously smart and capable people suddenly turn into idiots, and it’s especially egregious as the film has done a good job showing that the cultists — while maybe a bit too stylish — are far from godlike in their own actions. They’re people, flesh and blood, and they can be defeated. It feels almost as if the filmmakers painted themselves into a corner and weren’t sure how to proceed.

The cast is solid throughout, and while Unger isn’t given much to do both Schaech and Sullivan stand out with emotional turns built on competing motivations. There’s a tangible feel to the family unit (and girlfriend) that leaves you pulling for them — at least until they throw their brains to the wind — and it’s a feeling as much from the performances as from the script.

Jackals is a slick and suspenseful film that doesn’t stick the landing, but it’s still worth a watch for fans of the terror that comes with families in distress and killers at the door.

Jackals opens today in limited theatrical release.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.