REVIEW: The House That Jack Built (2018)

Theatrical Release Poster (Director) — TrustNordisk / Zentropa / IFC Films

The following is a review of The House That Jack Built — Directed by Lars Von Trier.

I have in a previous review described Lars Von Trier, the controversial Danish auteur, as a ‘true auteur mad man,’ and I’ve thought of him as the devil on Danish director Jørgen Leth’s shoulder guiding his every move in the fascinating documentary The Five Obstructions. He has been accused of sexual harassment, some people think he is a misogynist, and he has made a fool of himself by joking about his own identity, Naziism, and Israel. I’m not sure he cares whether or not you like him, and I’m sure he’d say that he’s perfectly happy knowing that his films divide audiences.

And divide audiences they do. As he was making his return to the Cannes Film Festival to present The House That Jack Built, he was reportedly met with an excessively long standing ovation, but his film also resulted in mass walkouts. Reportedly, more than 100 Cannes attendees left the film before it had come to its conclusion. After having seen the film, I can say that I think it definitely is a brutal film with images that could upset or offend, but it never inspired me to leave the film (and neither did anyone else in the half-filled theater room that I saw the film in).

In America, his unrated version, labeled as the director’s cut, was only allowed to be screened for one night, but, as I understand it, the version that I saw in the theater, the version released wide in Danish theaters, is, indeed, the uncensored, unrated version — the way Lars Von Trier would like us to see his film. Of course, an auteur like him despises censorship. However, he’d probably find it funny that the Danish Minister for Culture — Mette Bock of the Liberal Alliance party — has turned to social media to ask for a film of his that celebrates life and joy. Bock would probably be shocked to learn just how funny The House That Jack Built is.

Lars Von Trier’s The House That Jack Built is a self-reflective dark comedy about a serial killer, his compulsions, and his relationship with what he considers to be ‘his art’. It is divided into five chapters — called ‘incidents’ — in which he focuses on five different violent murders, mutilations, or strangulations. And then it ends with an epilogue that would have been a huge departure from the rest of the film were it not for the running voice-over conversation between two characters, whose journey is eventually shown there at the very end of the film. The glorious descent in the epilogue is worth the experience of watching the brutal five chapters that precede it.

The film follows Jack (played by Matt Dillon), a serial killer with OCD and a compulsion to clean, who eventually decides to go by the serial killer name ‘Mr. Sophistication’. And in the five incidents, we see him encounter first a stubborn and talkative woman (played by Uma Thurman) who is basically asking Jack to strike her, then a naive woman (played by Siobhan Fallon Hogan) who seems to be more interested in her pension than her safety, then a mother of two (played by Sofie Gråbøl), then a young blonde woman that he refers to as ‘Simple’ (played by Riley Keough), and, finally, multiple potential victims as he becomes more reckless. Through all of this, his behavior, his arrogance, and his misogyny are confronted and discussed by both Jack and the suspicious character known as Verge (played by Bruno Ganz).

The House That Jack Built features brutal imagery that is sure to make the weak-stomached and faint-hearted squirm, cover their eyes, and then run for the exit. But by the time Lars Von Trier truly decides to show his most upsetting images and actions, which are seen in the third and fourth incidents, he has already shown you just how much pitch black comedy can come out of this kind of film (I was smiling from ear-to-ear when Trier finally played “Hit the Road, Jack”).

In the first incident, Thurman’s character is annoying Jack so much so that he goes from being disinterested in her to deciding to shut her up. The crowd that I saw it with had a lot of fun with her comments. Then, in the second incident, Von Trier has a lot of fun with the OCD that he has given his main character. Seeing him run back and forth from his van to the scene of the crime again and again because he constantly thinks he missed a spot when he was removing blood splatter is surprisingly funny. That said, it stops becoming funny after that. I think the next time I laughed was in the fifth incident when one character asks Jack — like I imagine some lost audience member would want to ask Trier — something along the lines of: “Weren’t you going to build a house?”

Jack is presented as arrogant, self-important, misogynistic, he sounds like a men’s rights activist, and he likes to compare his ‘art’ and his process to not just wine-production, but also to Nazi architecture and dictators. Whether or not you think these ideas define Lars Von Trier will depend on you alone, but I think most would agree that The House That Jack Built is Lars Von Trier at his most self-reflective.

In the film, Dillon’s character soliloquizes about architecture, art, the noble rot (Google it), tigers, lambs, and the crimes of dictators. We see videos of all of these things, but Lars Von Trier goes one step further in making sure you understand just how much this film is still about him. In The House That Jack Built, Von Trier has cut together a greatest hits compilation of his previous films to show while Dillon monologues.

Those that dislike the film will call his methods egocentric navel-gazing, I, on the other hand, think of the film more as an exorcism or a release of the traits that have come to define him. My reading of the film views The House That Jack Built as a provocative, brutal, oddly funny, and draining trip to see Trier’s experience through cinematic purgatory. He mocks you, then he takes you to hell, and then he asks if he can come back out with you.

If the reception to this film is anything to go by, one half would welcome him back — like the Cannes Film Festival — whereas the other half would look at this gruesome work of art as more evidence of why he should not be held in high regard. But putting this film out into the wild was undoubtedly a therapeutic experience for the Danish auteur.

Though I do think his film is dull and pretentious at times, I think it is a fascinating and provocative work of fiction that his biggest supporters will gobble up. But I also must stress that this film won’t gain him any new supporters. It will likely make more people offended than it will impress. And, no, it isn’t a film you can recommend to anyone unfamiliar with Lars Von Trier or the kind of cinema that goes this far.

Perhaps I will one day revisit this film and think it is suddenly uncalled for, outrageous, or much too vile. Maybe I will hate this film a year from now. It may be broken, but it might be brilliant. At the time of writing (less than six hours after I left the theater), I think of it as an incredibly fascinating self-meditation on the supposed divinity of personal art, the cruel process of creation, and a soulless and unscrupulous existence. The House That Jack Built is a personal film for the auteur. It is Lars Von Trier’s own version of American Psycho complete with self-importance, a loony but brilliant central performance, and fascinating introspection.

8 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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