The House That Jack Built, 2018.
Directed by Lars Von Trier.
Starring Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman, Sibohan Fallon Hogan, Sofie Grabol, Riley Keough and Jeremy Davies.
Jack, a prolific and brutal serial killer, recounts his crimes to the Roman poet Virgil in an attempt to explain and justify his actions.
There is perhaps no European filmmaker more polarizing and controversial than Danish enfant terrible Lars Von Trier. No stranger to upsetting Cannes juries and critics with his often transgressive work, Von Trier caused a storm of outrage with the unveiling of today’s subject; the violent and pretentious art-house horror The House That Jack Built.
On a technical level, House is a meticulously crafted machine. Every detail about its story and structure is carefully thought out, staged and executed. The cinematography for much of the runtime adopts a handheld approach that gives the scenes of murder and bloodshed a suitably gritty vibe. Its habit of darting back and forth between sights almost matching the nervous twitch of the human eye. Almost as if we are in the room with the characters. The editing is superb, with the frequent intercutting of archive footage, still images of artworks and animated sequences pieced together in a careful, methodical manner that keeps you in Von Trier’s grip, curious to see what he will throw at you next.
The archive footage in question often yields some of the film’s most interesting, if perplexing, philosophical debates. Ruminations about architecture lead to a discussion about ruins, which leads to a discussion about Nazi architecture and on to a look at the Stuka bomber and then to a pondering on evil, including the Nazis and other despotic regimes, leading to a montage of disturbing footage including the Holocaust and other genocides that is deeply upsetting. This approach gives the film an almost stream of conscious approach, almost as if we are trying to follow Jack’s thought process as he attempts to explain his actions. Although, Von Trier does use these moments to enjoy a little bit of self-congratulation as one discussion leads to a montage of clips from several of his past films, including one particularly nightmarish birth scene from his acclaimed horror TV mini-series Riget (Kingdom).
The film’s much-discussed and controversial depiction of violence is where Von Trier seems to take a rather worrying degree of glee in revelling in. Such as a sequence in which a corpse is dragged behind Jack’s van in an almost darkly comic fashion to the tune of David Bowie’s “Fame”. While the violence is brutal, compared to other horror films I’ve seen (and even some of Von Trier’s other works), House is relatively tame in comparison. Although, I will concede that the scene in which Jack viciously murders his girlfriend (played by Riley Keough) via a brutal amateur mastectomy was a rare moment that left me shaken. And a moment of animal cruelty, which I hope was faked, is bound to leave many viewers upset.
Matt Dillon gives an enigmatic and captivating performance in the title role. Playing Jack as a sadistic, calculated killer with an overinflated sense of his own brilliance, his cold, calm voice, hypnotic wide eyes coupled with his attempts to act normal, giving him an eerie screen presence. The image of that blood-stained wide-eyed smirk that Dillon gives after his first on-screen murder sends shivers down the spine. It’s the pride and relief in his face at what he’s done that makes it disturbing.
However, while House is a well put together film with some interesting philosophical debates, I did not enjoy watching it. To be blunt, I found the whole thing to be an overlong, self-indulgent, quasi-philosophical masturbation fest for Von Trier, as he takes us on a two and half hour trip up his own arse. The bloated run-time doesn’t help matters, with scenes playing out far longer than they should, with the often repetitive nature of scenes only making things worse. A moment in which Jack (who suffers from OCD) keeps returning to a murder scene to clean up is a particularly guilty offender. The constant running back and forth making what could have (and should have) been a relatively short scene drag on for what feels like an age. While it may be an accurate depiction of OCD, the fact that the film then drops it all together, with Jack going around killing with no trouble at all, is frustrating, to say the least, almost as if there was no point. The film is frankly too long, and if it was missing 30/45 minutes, I don’t think anything would have been lost.
I will concede that while the main bulk of the runtime (consisting of several vignettes or “Incidents”) left me struggling to stay engaged, the epilogue almost made the whole thing worth it. A supremely surreal sequence of events in which Jack is guided into Hell by the Roman poet Virgil, played by the late Bruno Ganz. The scene is simply brilliant, filled with curious sights such as the two in giant bubbles sinking into the ocean, a stroll through a waterlogged cave and culminating with a goodbye over the lake of fire as Jack tries his luck at escaping Hell. This entire epilogue is, without question, the film’s best moment, and I wish that much more of it had been done in this style. The story of a serial killer recounting his crimes might make for a decent film, but the story of a serial killer literally venturing into Hell to pay for those crimes is one that, in the right hands, could be genius.
The House That Jack Built is not an easy film to recommend, but it’s also not an easy one to condemn. The film is technically accomplished with excellent cinematography and editing, with Matt Dillon’s disturbing lead performance at least keeping you invested, even if only to see how his story ends. However, the pretentious approach to its loose story and themes, repetitive nature and overlong runtime make it a tough sit at times, and far from being shocking, the film is just dull, save for its brilliant ending. Quite simply, The House that Jack Built is probably what Von Trier wanted it to be; a polarising work that, love it or hate it, at least gets you thinking.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★