The House That Jack Built Reviews
The films of Lars Von Trier have definitely earned their polarizing status, always swinging for the fences with their provocative, unflinching portrayals of...well, I think his films are about death, the ugliness of human nature, and ego. Many will view his latest, THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT, as an epic-length, high body count, exploitative, serial killer film with little to no redeeming social value. I found it to be a whip smart, sickly funny exploration of our souls. To each their own.
Matt Dillon, in a hypnotically disturbing performance, plays Jack, an architect with over 60 gruesome murders under his belt. We hear him first in a voiceover conversation with a mysterious man named Verge (Bruno Ganz) as they discuss five incidents in Jack's troubling "career". They also delve into Jack's childhood, which includes one particularly traumatizing image, Jack's endless pursuit of building his own ideal home, odd clips of the pianist Glenn Gould, shots from Von Trier's prior films, and Jack flipping cards filled with various words much like as in Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" video. It all adds up as a strange treatise on the nature of art and what defines it. Even sick minds such as Jack's, Von Trier appears to argue, contain the soul of an artist.
Much like Michael Haneke's FUNNY GAMES, this film plays with the discomfort victims feel when facing their killer. With such victims as Uma Thurman, as a woman stranded on the road unlucky enough to hop into Jack's van, or Siobhan Fallon Hogan as a widow who lets Jack into her home, we experience painful interactions which show Jack trying against his instincts to portray a relatively normal guy. With Thurman, he can barely control his rage as she jokingly discusses that he is probably a serial killer. With Hogan, he repeatedly changes his story, first as a cop and then as an insurance salesman...anything to get inside and kill her. Other scenarios show him with a mother and her two children, a young woman he dubs "Simple" (Riley Keough) because he frankly thinks she's an idiot, and an extremely gruesome HUMAN CENTIPEDE-esque experiment with a group of men in a walk-in freezer. Throughout, Jack collects his "trophies" in said freezer, posing them for grotesque photos, trying to find his artistic "voice".
Von Trier takes things a step further by giving Jack the best luck of any killer in history. Not always even trying to cover his tracks, Jack barely hides in plain sight, allowing his victims to scream as loudly as they wish, or in one incredible sequence, watching in awe as Mother Nature literally washes away any evidence. It makes for a challenging theme, inviting the audience to not exactly root for Jack, but to conspire with him. We may not want Jack to make the perfect artistic statement or build his perfect home, but it's fascinating to find out what it is nonetheless. I'm gonna subtract a few points from this film for cribbing so obviously from Bryan Fuller's great HANNIBAL series with its Hieronymus Bosch-like corpse art. It was shocking to see then, but not so much now. Jack should have come up with his own ideas!
Even Von Trier isn't content to just show one killing after another. He wants to make a grand statement. The films runs over 2 1/2 hours after all. As such, he takes the final act of the film, an epilogue of sorts, to a truly dark place. It's a wild leap to take us into such a special effects-laden environment, especially considering the naturalistic way the rest of the film comes across, but it's in keeping with Jack's curious nature. He's always looking for a way to wriggle out of any situation or to take advantage of weakness. He argues that killing and death are art forms. As decent human beings, we may heartily disagree, but THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT has a good time making its case. Although much of the violence appears offscreen, a few moments are absolutely sickening. Still, I think it does a great job of putting us into a serial killer's mindset, giving it a type of morbid value. Most will disagree and find this an irredeemable, endless bore. Serial/Cereal I say!
"The house Jack built," can therefore be seen by at least two prisms. Let's start with the first one.
Von Trier's new film can be seen as an exercise in evil without consequences. In the story, Matt Dillon is Jack, an engineer with ambitions to be an architect who dreams of building a house so perfect that it always seems impossible to build it. But Jack is also a serial killer, who in 12 years killed more than 60 people without ever being caught by the police.
Throughout the film, Jack is developing a theory in a conversation with an entity called Verge (Bruno Ganz) about how artistic his life of crime is. He argues that art comes from pain and evil as Verge understands art as the fruit of love. This dialogue of oppositions is mapping the whole film to each increasingly heinous act of Jack, always accompanied by the attentive but placid look of Verge, a character that only in the end we understand what the role is. And it is curious that this character was made by the same actor who played Hitler in "Der Untergang" (2004). Hard to believe it was a casual choice.
With each murder of Jack, Von Trier goes on to illustrate how evil is banal and how desperate each one is so lonely and finds no echo and no solidarity. He is the Lord Sophistication and develops perfect crimes as long as the population inoperative around and the slowness of the authorities.
At the same time, Von Trier develops the thesis that the serial killer is an individual who is born with evil in him and always leaves clues to every crime. For he wants to be found, discovered. There is a vanity in this fight of cat and mouse, because the killer at some point wants to be discovered to have his "work of art" finally disclosed and gaining public and notoriety.
At the same time, the director exposes that we, as spectators, worship these stories and adulate murderers. It is when the director exposes the images of dictators and mass murderers like Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin.
The film, however, ends up dripping in the end by a long biblical strand that seemed to disagree somewhat with the initial proposal. Had he kept the subtlety of the conversations between Jack and Verge with a less long ending, he would have something better to offer.
But it is impossible to see "The house Jack built" on another prism. A of von Trier's misogyny. In the film, Jack says he murdered all kinds of people, but it's the story of six women he decides to tell Verge, the ones who give him some pleasure. One of them, he considers his great work of art, when he treats a mother and his two small children as a hunt and drops them in a field just to play with them. But it is the woman he decides to torture psychologically before offering her a tragic end.
Von Trier is a well-known torturer of women and seems to have no problem in exposing this. In a passage of the film, when Jack is about to kill Simple (Riley Keough), name that by itself is a great aggression and reductionism to the woman that he said until liking, the director comes to expose a subtext in the script speaking of the injustice that is always blame men for everything, while women are always victims. In times complaints of harassment and a necessary call to female protagonism, Von Trier comes to tell us that he does not care about this. So that does not expose a need to be controversial only by the controversy in something that adds nothing to the film?
Simple is verbally assaulted, humiliated and has the most dreadful and sadistic of deaths. And that reverberates during the film, because Jack turns one of his breasts into a wallet.
But as I said, von Trier is a well-known torturer of women in the movies. Nicole Kidman is humiliated beyond the limit in "Dogville" (2003), causing a huge nuisance. Chalotte Gainsbourg is also taken beyond all boundaries in "Antichrist" (2009) and in the two volumes of "Nymphomaniac" (2013). Björk is also humiliated in "Dancing in the Dark" (2000). The Icelandic singer, even, had problems of relationship with the director. And in "The House Jack Built," Von Trier exposes his women to the utmost of pain and horror. Not just with Simple or one of the nameless women, but also with the first victim (Uma Thurman), murdered with a monkey blow while the director makes a point of exposing the huge hole in the head of the character caused by the car part.
Some might say, and it is a valid argument, that it is all the art of Von Trier. That the actresses keep bumping into working with him and in the case of Charlotte, they make even more than one movie. But when it comes to stop being something punctual to become a brand, and an uncomfortable brand, as it is not a style trait, but a hate speech imputed in their work, becomes a problem.
Thus, "The House Jack Built" does not add anything too new to Von Trier's biopic, which continues releasing its Dogma-style sparks to film, and making their stories follow the same narrative looping of earlier works. Interesting is Dilon's work in the leading role. If there's a spark of value in the film, it's in the sadistic-boring look he set for his Jack and the benefit he had from the ironies of the text to use in his character. But still, "The house Jack built" is far from the best works of Von Trier.