PET SEMATARY wants to punish Jason Clarke, and everyone else, for being such a fuck-up

With Pet Sematary, Jason Clarke has truly arrived. Not as a Hollywood leading man; he’s already played John Connor (in a Terminator if not The Terminator), the main guy in a Planet of the Apes sequel, and a bunch of prominent roles in prestige-y pictures like Mudbound, The Great Gatsby, and Chappaquiddick. In 2019, Clarke has arguably already blown past the traditional leading-man phase of his career, and gone into Patrick Wilson territory, which I would define as operating in a perpetual state of former leading man.

This is not the same as a perpetual Baxter/Ralph Bellamy type, like Bill Pullman in 1993, or James Marsden in the early 2000s, playing the nice, handsome, normal guy who often loses the girl to someone cooler, handsomer, and less normal. Those characters are hardly ever actually leading roles, their reduced screen presence tipping the audience off about who the real star is. But Jason Clarke is the main character in Pet Sematary, just as sure as Patrick Wilson is the male lead of Insidious, Little Children, Watchmen, and Young Adult among others. He’s not playing the same guy in all of these movies, but there’s definitely a vibe (reinforced by his work on the indelible Girls episode “One Man’s Trash”): the handsome guy who’s in some supposed position of power, authority, or contentment, but operating with some kind of faded glory, lack of gumption, or dark secret. He is, whether pleasantly (Young Adult) or destructively (Insidious), the golden boy gone slightly to seed. He’s often a husband and/or a father, and he’s usually trying, if not necessarily his best. Often, he’s just a little too passive or outmatched by someone. He gets in over his head. It’s not his fault, except it kind of is.

Jason Clarke doesn’t have Patrick Wilson’s All-American Golden Boy look; he’s Australian, and he looks a bit like fellow Aussie Joel Edgerton spliced with a little Colm Meany. But he’s handsome, projects a sense of upright competence, and, hey, he’s in all of these big Hollywood movies, right? He must be there for a reason. The negative-minded reading of this presence would be that Hollywood, in a constant scramble to mint new stars in a down market, constantly presses good actors into underqualified service as leads, especially with men, especially with English and Australian men for some reason (call it the Worthington Effect). The more charitable reading is that Jason Clarke now makes a lot of sense for a certain type of leading role, where is more or less expected to fuck things up in a way that Tom Cruise or even a less fanatically image-obsessed superstar like Leonardo DiCaprio would never allow.

Hence Jason Clarke’s magical 2019, in which he has played: an abusively irredeemable drunken lout of a husband to Anne Hathaway in Serenity; an emotionally closed-off husband to Keira Knightley in The Aftermath; and a husband and father dealing with unimaginable loss (and making things much worse) in the new version of Pet Sematary. He is cuckolded in two of these three films, is named Louis (or Lewis) in two of them, and goes zero for three on functional marriages, very much in line with the movies where he plays a guy married to Isla Fisher (Gatsby), a guy married to his Gatsby co-star Carey Mulligan (Mudbound), and a guy married to Blake Lively (All I See Is You), always with the unspoken expectation that he’s not really handsome or interesting enough to make those marriages work. Nate Jones at Vulture wrote a bit about Clarke as movieland’s cuck of choice, and Vulture’s Emily Yoshida pinpointed him even more exactly as “decentralized masculinity incarnate”, but these bits were both written before Pet Sematary, which plays like the apex of the Jason Clarke Male—in part because it doesn’t offer a cogent critique of American masculinity or much of anything else. Jason Clarke is the lead in this movie because this movie wants to hassle Jason Clarke.

I’m not sure this Pet Sematary has much else on its mind besides hassling its characters, to be honest. This new adaptation of Stephen King’s 1983 horror novel obviously aspires, like a lot of King’s best work, to get under the audience’s skin by playing on real-life fear, not just by parading around creepy clowns or ghoulish eviscerations or undead cats (also that, but not just). Louis (Clarke), Rachel (Amy Seimetz), their young daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence) and their baby son move out to the country to decompress, and discover that their property includes a long-running pet burial ground. With the help of local avuncular coot Jud (John Lithgow), Louis also discovers the burial ground beyond the burial ground, a vast and eerie landscape where if you bury something dead—a cat felled by one of the trucks that speeds through the backwoods, say—it may creep its way back home.

The movie’s Stephen King roots show not just in this slight overcomplication (it’s a movie about a pet burial ground where a pet comes back to life by being buried in another, separate burial ground) but in the ghoulish visions and nightmares that are probably more intricately detailed in the page. Here, the dead teenager who Louis, a doctor, tries to save in the local ER, and the sister who Rachel lost as a child feel more like haunted vestiges of former subplots—tokens of fealty that aren’t properly woven into the movie’s actual narrative.

For that matter, very little of the spooky stuff in this movie feels especially organic, or even all that scary. What it is, more often, is gruesome and unpleasant, all while kinda-sorta insisting that it’s making some kind of insight about the nature of death. There’s an interesting (if on-the-nose) moment early on where Louis and Rachel visibly disagree over how to address the topic of death with little Ellie. Louis, the doctor, wants to approach it with a rationality and frankness that borders on smug, unable to resist telling his kid that no one’s really sure about an afterlife. Rachel wants to deliver the straight heaven line. This becomes important later, when, shall we say, something bigger than a cat is faced with a possible resurrection—or rather, it would be important, directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer summoned the dread they think they’re evoking. Instead, the movie seems intent primarily on punishing Louis and Rachel. Louis, for serenely intoning that death is a part of life. Rachel, for trying to comfort her daughter (and herself) with thoughts of heaven. King has described the book as intensely dark even for him, submitted at the end of a contract with the expectation that it might be rejected. The movie gets at that sense of hopelessness, but doesn’t root it in much sense of character.

Louis does eventually, in the rich tradition of Jason Clarke characters, start fucking things up; he’s the one who makes a series of rash resurrection-related decisions when the universe cruelly calls him on his initial insistence that death is just a natural part of life. But because most of the characters in the movie are haunted by a combination of death, terrible accidents, and poor decisions, Louis never feels like an emblem of anything more than bad luck, his fate as rigged as anything in Serenity. The movie picks up a little black-comic verve when it clears out some of the characters and has to sit with Louis as he tries to figure his way out of an impossibly ghoulish situation, borne out of loss and grief and impulse. But ultimately, Kölsch and Widmyer are just moving headstones around a graveyard.

Fair enough to make a nasty, unrelenting horror picture; I’ve enjoyed some of those myself. What rankles about Pet Sematary is how cynically it employs parental grief—not even as an all-consuming force of darkness, but as one more contrived plot device that gets a well-meaning dope in over his head. (Its employment of a dead cat is, on the other hand, admittedly quite skillful. The mottled little beast has charisma, even or especially when it comes back wrong from the sour ground.) It’s the movie as much as the characters that’s playing with forces it doesn’t entirely understand. Clarke does his best to, as ever, bring some dimension to his character’s failures. (He does this especially well in The Aftermath, despite the movie’s mostly-turgid melodrama.) But I got the feeling the filmmakers were just looking for someone they knew they could kick around—and maybe Patrick Wilson won’t take this shit anymore.