REVIEW: The House That Jack Built [2018]

Score: 3/10 | ★


Rating: R | Runtime: 155 minutes | Release Date: November 29th, 2018 (Denmark)
Studio: IFC Films
Director(s): Lars von Trier
Writer(s): Lars von Trier / Jenle Hallund (story)

“The choice is entirely yours”

I can’t wait to discover what’s next for Lars von Trier‘s oeuvre. He followed his Dogme 95 phase with a period steeped in depression and now that one has seemingly just ended with [the blatantly autobiographical] film The House That Jack Built. At its center is the personification of this latter phase’s creative genius—a projection of his aesthetically gorgeous vignettes of brutally depraved imagery. This serial killer (Matt Dillon‘s Jack) sees his trophies as art, his victims the material with which he’s created them from the darkest recesses of his psychopathic mind. A man fueled by the hubris necessary to continue increasing his risk while unfathomably surviving unscathed, Jack is ultimately chaperoned by Virgil (Bruno Ganz) to Hell. Unlike Dante, however, that’s the farthest he goes.

So what should we expect next? Romantic comedies? Family-friendly adventures? The possibilities are endless considering he’s already delivered a stunning musical forever mired by the fact his misogyny escaped his imagination and manifested in real life to prevent Björk from ever wanting to act again. My assumption is that von Trier will pick a tried and true genre, aligning with the obvious revelation of this latest work that art is and always will be copies of what came before. This is why he’s adopted an oft-used title throughout cinematic history. It’s why he uses clips from his own movies to prove a salient point with the blunt force trauma of a car jack to the face. He’s defending his depravity by presenting a case for its intrinsic banality.

And as a fan of von Trier’s work for over two decades, this is the line of thinking I should probably possess. It’s the sort of blindly apologetic defense of his childish desire to elicit a reaction fans spew—one showing its cracks to reveal itself a flimsy filter providing the ability to do things he might wish he could if the world returned to a state of primordial lawlessness wherein impulse and bloodlust ruled the day. The quote used to sell this specific vision (about how it was born from “the idea that life is evil and soulless”), however, posits we’re already there. That’s why financiers give him money to murder women his characters deem too mean, docile, or stupid. It’s why we buy tickets to watch.

Had this arrived five years ago, I might have spoken those first two paragraphs in earnest too. A lot has happened since then, though. A lot has happened the past three hundred and sixty-five days alone. It’s therefore difficult to simply accept his crude commentary (if it’s even intentional) as enough to forgive the content on its own terms. In a pre-recorded introduction, von Trier talks about how he made this film to be something that needs to sit with viewers for two days to decipher its meaning. He also closes his speech with the hashtag-lite declaration of “no more Trumps.” As such, it doesn’t take but a few minutes to recognize the blonde white women Jack murders as Trump voters. The red MAGA hats give it away.

So is Jack a hero now? Is he a man fed up with the state of America today and thus doing his best to rid us of a demographic that continues to vote against its own best interests? Um … no. At one point Jack laments (in great MRA fashion) that men are fated to shoulder the burden of always being guilty until proven innocent. “Women are the victim and blah, blah, blah.” So now he’s positioned as one of the alt-right crazies gunning down mosques, synagogues, and schools in the name of fake media bias? I’d care more about figuring out the purpose of such a stark contrast between motivation and target if it was the only mixed message included. I’d care if the comedy felt earned.

Yes. Comedy. That’s what The House That Jack Built is. Ignore all the warnings about how graphic or violent it is because it’s actually pretty tame when compared to many of his previous films. And talk of walkouts? Well my opinion is that they must have been triggered by boredom rather than disgust because this director’s cut is insufferably repetitive and hollow. We’re asked to laugh as Jack must reenter the scene of a murder one hundred times because he suffers from OCD and can’t escape the dread of leaving blood behind. We’re asked to laugh as he almost kills a woman, props her head up with a pillow in remorse, and then does kill her before guffawing at a disability. All before killing conveniently cures said disability.

Jack’s youthful memories running through fields of reeds are accompanied by David Bowie’s “Fame” to conjure more giggles (the end credits play “Hit the Road Jack”) and Dillon goes full-throttle into the awkward absurdity of his actions to try and make it land despite the subject matter. But I only found myself laughing at von Trier for putting it together. He’s the one who decided to lambast himself, desecrate a child’s body with an Aphex Twin grin, and make everyone involved an idiot (audiences) and Jack a horseshoe wearing citizen of death with carte blanche to do as he will (the director himself). He’s asking us to laugh at his work, success, and controversies. He’s figuratively sentencing his last decade (the depression-laden era post-Manderlay) to Hell.

It’s not an apology, though. Where Virgil let Dante acknowledge his sins, Jack is beyond salvation. There won’t be purgatory or Heaven. The Elysian Fields reminiscent of his childhood (and a projection of what could have been if his life took a different path) aren’t accessible from where Virgil leads him. It’s in this epilogue (following five laborious “incidents” told “at random” from memory) that von Trier shows the level of artistry we’ve come to admire from him via nightmarish sights of beautiful carnage. Sadly everything before it is pedestrian by comparison when it’s not seemingly vile for vile sake. Uma Thurman plays her role way too broad. Siobhan Fallon Hogan is better than the material deserves. And Riley Keough is wasted for gratuitous nudity turned body horror.

What’s worse is that it could have been an apology if von Trier took it seriously. This could have been a penance rather than a blatant “fuck you” to audiences lapping it up, the industry for giving him countless second chances, and himself for refusing to stop. What was a style that birthed high (albeit truly disturbing) art (Antichrist), unforgettable epiphany (Melancholia), and a mixed bag with shades of brilliance (Nymphomaniac), however, has now delivered pure farce. The House That Jack Built is goofy in all the wrong ways, violent without substantive purpose, and unsubtle enough to wonder if von Trier (and script supervisor turned story originator Jenle Hallund) actually had anything to say besides, “Thank you for letting me get away with this for so long.”


photography:
[1] photo by Zentropa-Christian Geisnaes.jpg: Matt Dillon as Jack in Lars von Trier’s THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT. Photography by Christian Geisnaes. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.
[2] photo by Zentropa-Christian Geisnaes.jpg: Matt Dillon as Jack, and Uma Thurman as Lady 1 in Lars von Trier’s THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT. Photography by Christian Geisnaes. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.
[3] photo by Zentropa-Christian Geisnaes.jpg: Matt Dillon as Jack in Lars von Trier’s THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT. Photography by Christian Geisnaes. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

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