The House That Jack Built (2018)
Originally intended as a small screen telly series, Lars von Trier’s latest, The House That Jack Built, made headlines last year after a hundred or so people walked out of its premiere screening at the Cannes Film Festival, patrons claiming that the movie was ‘disgusting’ and ‘vile,’ one even going so far as to say that the whole thing was ‘one of the most unpleasant movie-going experiences’ of his life. With that said, von Trier is no stranger to controversy, the Danish filmmaker known for being somewhat of a provocateur — here’s a guy who joked about being a Nazi, expressing sympathy for Adolf Hitler, at a press conference in Cannes back in 2011, which got him banned from the festival for seven long years.
Throughout his extensive career, von Trier has always surveyed the deeply disturbing nature of the human condition and the darkness that dwells inside the hearts of man — from the bleakly surreal Antichrist (2009) to the two-part sex epic Nymphomaniac (2013) — and The House That Jack Built is no different. A ferocious onslaught of nasty, abhorrent imagery contrasted against a hilarious pitch-black tone, von Trier’s newest film explores the same transgressive themes that have fuelled his entire filmography. This time, however, von Trier pushes the envelope even further by using the character of Jack as a vessel to deconstruct the pain of the creative process, along with his own work and the criticisms often thrown against it.
The story takes place in the USA in the ’70s, and follows the neurotic Jack (a career-best Matt Dillon), an engineer and aspiring architect who wants to build his very own house. It just so happens that Jack is also a murderous psychopath (using the moniker Mr. Sophistication), whose method involves killing people then stuffing their bodies into his cherry-colored van before driving them to an abandoned industrial walk-in freezer, where he hides out and stores the corpses. Over the course of the film’s 155-minutes (I got to see the uncut version), Jack recounts the five key incidents that helped shape him as a serial murderer (who’s gotten away with his heinous crimes scot-free for years), these segments broken into chapters and presented in a hand-held documentary style.
The first of these is Jack’s initial slaying, where he meets a stranger (Uma Thurman) who’s having car troubles. She pesters him into giving her a ride to the mechanic, and, along the way, talks him into becoming a serial killer (something he’s clearly thought about before). Although his preliminary kill is kinda sloppy, Jack gets better and more creative with time, after realizing luck is on his side, and that no one is willing to help anyone else out (von Trier’s cynical worldview, no doubt). At one point, the sadistic Jack, who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, ventures back into a woman’s house (after having strangled her to death) just to clean up the blood splats he imagines he’s left behind. Right after that, good ol’ Jack drags the victim’s body, face down, along the road from the back of his rickety van, which seems like a sort of self-sabotage, and then watches the rain wash the icky trail away, as if someone or some higher power were looking out for his ass. Becoming more cocky and confident, Jack eventually begins taking more risks, viewing each perverted act as an artwork, even though the inevitable is drawing nearer.
Between the vignettes, the egotistical Jack talks to an unknown figure named Verge or Virgil (Bruno Ganz), who we don’t get to see until the climax, and acts as a sort of ‘voice of reason,’ Jack trying to rationalize his actions whilst discussing art and architecture, his mental state, and personal ideologies. Verge ultimately winds up guiding our protagonist through the netherworld, and closer to his final destination, their back-and-forth becoming a clever re-enactment of the first part of Italian writer Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century poem the Divine Comedy (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso); here there’s a stunning recreation of Eugène Delacroix’s 1882 painting The Barque of Dante, which has also been inspired by Alighieri’s opus. Throughout this discourse it becomes evident that Jack and Verge represent different parts of auteur von Trier, who’s basically quarrelling with himself on screen in front of the audience, analyzing his own work, bringing us into an argument between his narcissistic side (who believes death and destruction cultivate great art) and his more self-aware side (who’s constantly critiquing Jack’s deranged deeds, character flaws and warped ideals).
In one part, just like von Trier, Jack is criticized for being a misogynist. Jack, however, claims that he doesn’t discriminate when it comes to murder, our anti-hero slaughtering men, women, children and even animals throughout his nihilistic journey. While some of these brutal acts are played for laughs (think the darkest kinda black comedy), certain portions of the film can be difficult to watch (yet, for some reason, I couldn’t look away). The fourth incident, where Jack (who pretends to be crippled) toys with a young woman named Jacqueline (Riley Keough), whom he calls ‘Simple,’ feels kind of cruel, the ‘punch line’ coming off as sickly funny and also quite disturbing. There are other stabs at tasteless humor, too, including an on-going ‘assignment’ whereby Jack contorts many of the stiffs he’s collected into ghastly statues to display in his icy meat locker; a bit with a kid he nicknames ‘Grumpy,’ and an elaborate house that Jack builds out of bodies, are sure to remain with viewers long after the film’s over.
Visually, the picture is quite striking, von Trier and cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro, Melancholia (2011), utilizing a variety of different mediums to express ideas — animation, historical footage (i.e., snippets of Canadian pianist Glenn Gould playing Bach), images, etc. — the epilogue (titled Katabasis) featuring some of the most hauntingly beautiful Gothic imagery I’ve seen in years. It’s also packed to the gills with homages and references to pop culture and things such as Trump’s America — in one upsetting scene, Jack (who’s the epitome of an alt-right poster boy) dons a red cap and places one on a mother (Sofie Gråbøl) and her sons before lecturing the doomed family on the importance of firearms. Elsewhere, von Trier recreates Bob Dylan’s iconic card dropping from his ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ music video, and uses David Bowie’s ‘Fame’ as a backdrop to many of Jack’s twisted shenanigans. There are also clips of the Holocaust (probably a nod to the infamous comments that got von Trier banned from Cannes) as well as his own movies, these aiding to the flick’s ongoing discussion of the tortured artist.
Channeling the likes of Ted Bundy and American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, Matt Dillon, Drugstore Cowboy (1989), anchors the film with a tour de force performance that’s easily the zenith of his career. Dillon is simply magnetic, the (now) 55-year-old showcasing his dynamic range (he’s both likable and loathsome, hilarious one minute and absolutely terrifying the next), basically carrying the weight of the entire film on his capable shoulders. Heck, it’s borderline impossible to imagine anyone else in the role.
A reflection on Lars von Trier’s turbulent career and a quasi-apology for his past sins, The House That Jack Built is an insane trip into the mind of a madman (one that’s bound to get under your skin), and an incredibly sophisticated and tough movie to fully understand. Grandiose, grotesque, facetious and fascinating, Jack’s ‘house’ certainly won’t be for everyone, but if you’ve got the stomach, I urge you to accept the invitation into the fiery pits of hell — I can assure you there ain’t nothing else like it.
5 / 5 – Don’t Miss!
Reviewed by Mr. Movie