Last spring during Cannes Film Festival, you may have read about the 100 or so people who walked out during the latest “gruesome” Lars Von Trier film, The House That Jack Built— resulting in conflicting reviews such as, “Von Trier went too far,” while others proclaiming it as his “best film to date.” Nothing new for the controversial Von Trier– as his moody, violent, arthouse-style horror-drama films have only won the ‘Pissing the MPAA Off Awards’ rather than Academy Award-winning accolades. His latest shocker will be no different.
In a span of 12 years within the ’70s and ’80s, an OCD-ridden serial killer, Jack (Matt Dillon) relays a handful of his predatory “incidents,” to a mysterious older gentleman– whose identity is seldom revealed until the last act– in which a comparison of murder and execution styles to various forms of architecture and artwork is discussed, similarly to the ways in which Patrick Bateman discusses his forms of materialism to his murders in American Psycho. In fact, if American Psycho and Peeping Tom had an evil, arthouse lovechild, you’d get The House That Jack Built, naturally. What else would you expect from a Von Trier film?
I am not easily offended by gruesome violence in film, especially when it serves a purpose to the greater good of the narrative. For example, watching Von Trier’s other brutal arthouse-drama Antichrist is hard to stomach, sure– especially a particular vaginal mutilation scene– but, when you make sense of the woman’s grief for the tragic loss of her young son, and her need to blame herself and her own selfish, carnal desires, as her and her husband were having sex and neglecting their son in the next room, you can at least kinda understand her need to physically destroy herself, as well as the root of which she blames her problems. It’s totally bizzaro, out-of-this-world levels of crazy, but I at least bought it and made sense of it. However, The House That Jack Built isn’t necessarily as thematically crystal-clear to me.
The Bad: The dialogue is sometimes weak, with certain scenes dragging on far too long. As funny as it was initially, I didn’t need all 10 minutes of a cringeworthy scene in which Jack is lying through his teeth to one of his future victims, making up some unbelievably dumb story about being a cop, just so he can wiggle his way into her home and finish her off.
…Which brings me to my next gripe: The women in this film– not just some, but pretty much all of them– are depicted as inferiorly stupid. In fact, one is simply referred to as “Simple” by Jack, as he boasts about how much “easier” women are to “hunt” than men. Uma Thurman’s unnamed character in the opening scene is pretty much begging to die at Jack’s hands. In a questionable piece of dialogue, Jack even goes as far as to whine and complain that men are always unfairly being blamed as predatory, while women are always depicted as sympathetic victims– which seems like an all-too-obvious jab at Hollywood’s “Me Too” era, as well as President 45’s backlash to “pussy-grabbing”. Does Von Trier actually sympathize with these men? Or, is he commenting on/giving his middle finger to all the trash men who do actually think this way? Is the character of Jack a metaphor for Trump himself? A coward who bullies those who he considers weaker? I’d like to think Von Trier’s intent is the latter, but it’s never exactly clear.
The House That Jack Built also sometimes suffers from predictability. I could totally see from a mile away what exactly the contents of Jack’s “house” would be, well before it is showed to us. (However, the payoff is great.) Additionally, the epilogue scene in which Jack tries to make sense of himself, predictably ends in a way in which you are waiting for– but is still very satisfying when it does come. Even his use of violence is predictable. Is he including it for the purpose of the story, or because he knows everyone expects him to keep pushing the envelope?
In case you weren’t already aware of the extremity of his vanity, Von Trier also inserts clips and references from some of his other films, including Antichrist and Melancholia, towards the film’s epilogue chapter, not necessarily suggesting that they share a same universe per se, but moreso for him to pat himself on the back for his “great art,” which is said in a moment of dialogue between Jack and mystery man. Yes, he actually did that.
The Good: In spite of all the complaints above, I still dug this movie. I think Von Trier smartly blends in the film’s campy, jet-black humor to make it easier to swallow as you witness a little duckling’s legs being broken off or horrific scenes of child murders. David Bowie’s “Fame” makes you uncomfortably giggle as it is being repeatedly played in between Jack’s hilariously debilitating fits of OCD paranoia. In fact, a scene in the beginning, in which Jack keeps imagining puddles of blood he may have left after cleaning up a murder scene, is laugh-out-loud funny. Sure, The House That Jack Built is pretentiously shot and grotesquely violent, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is what makes it work well.
Thematically, what does work for me, even if it isn’t always portrayed as clearly as it could be, is the fact that Von Trier knows that many people are cowardly when it comes to defending victims of violent situations. In many of Jack’s “incidents,” witnesses or passersby do nothing when his victims are screaming for help. In one particular case, Jack mocks his victim, and tells her to scream as loud as she can, because, no one, even in a big apartment complex, will come to her aid anyway. A cop that Jack encounters, who acts suspicious of him, lets him go, even as Jack drives away with a body dragging on the back of his van. A man who works at a gun shop that Jack frequents hesitates to ask Jack why exactly he needs a particular rifle, even though he can sense that it will be used for a horrific reason. Von Trier knows that we could prevent the various mass shootings that occur within this country if we inserted ourselves into more invasive background checking, as well as preventing sexual harassment cases by actually listening to and believing women. At least I hope this was his intent.
Additionally, Matt Dillon is perfection as Jack. Like Christian Bale’s turn in American Pyscho and Carl Boehm in Peeping Tom, Dillon’s performance as Jack feels wonderfully three-dimensional, in a way that you’ll often detest him, yet sympathize with his awkwardness and attempts to fit into society. A scene in which we watch Jack practice everyday facial expressions in the mirror is hilarious, yet also heartbreaking. Dillon gives his all here, and will likely be credited as making Jack an all-time favorite fictional, cult classic serial killer.
The Ugly: A particular body horror scene that gave me sympathy pains in my breasts has not yet left my conscious. Nor has a visual in which a reoccurring dead child becomes somewhat of a puppet! Take your pick of shocking visuals.
For those who know what insanity that they are getting themselves into: consider seeing The House That Jack Built and determine your personal threshold for yourself. You can see an edited, R-rated version of The House That Jack Built in select theaters on December 14th, but you should probably just wait until the director’s cut becomes available to rent or stream. Casual horror fans and wimps need not apply. ~