Movie Review : The House That Jack Built (2018)
* This review contains spoilers *
Hating Danish film director Lars Von Trier is pretty hip, right now. To be fair, he doesn’t seem very likable: he publicly claimed to sympathize with Adolf Hitler in 2011, Bjork accused him of sexual harassment on the set of Dancer in the Dark and… he just does whatever the fuck he feels like, no matter which way the wind blows. Von Trier still has a career today because his films remained consistently interesting for all these years. His latest The House that Jack Built is perhaps his most provocative and uncompromising to date, but it does have a lot to say.
The House That Jack Built tells the story of Jack (the newly resurrected Matt Dillon), a reclusive engineer who dreamed of becoming an architect. Jack loves to kill people. Women in particular, which he describes to be more cooperative in the process. The film is articulated around five particular killings over a long and eventful “career” through which he claims to have killed over 60 people. These occurrences reveal Jack’s true nature to himself and eventually convince him to follow artistic pursuits. That’s about it, really. There’s also an epilogue at the end, but let’s not spoil it. It’s pretty fucking weird *.
There are two major themes explored in The House That Jack Built. Let’s talk about misogyny first. Von Trier more or less confirms that he confronts his own misogyny through Jack by making him say: “Some people claim that the atrocities we commit in our fiction are those inner desires which we cannot commit in our controlled civilization, so they're expressed instead through our art,” while he breaks the fourth wall and show images from his other movies. Jack disagrees with the statement, but obviously not Von Trier who created this ugly, unlikable protagonist who’s doing vile things to women ** under the pretense that it is art.
That brings me what I thought was brilliant about this movie: it is profoundly disinterested in its own violence. I mean, it is there. It is horrifyingly there, on screen and inescapable. But Lars Von Trier is so coldly and clinically dressing it down, it almost comes off a satirical. Jack constantly claims that he’s making art, but his killings are as artless and vile as they come. I mean, it’s not because you take photos of what you did that you’re suddenly an artist. There’s thing corpse of a taxidermied boy haunting the movie that looks like an elementary school noodle art project, which I’m never going to be able to unsee. The clash between what Jack is saying and what Von Trier is filming is brutal and challenging.
Lars Von Trier himself stated that The House That Jack Built “celebrates the idea that life is evil and soulless”, which is seen through the women’s fates. Although they are objectified by Jack, they don’t come off as such. These women want to live. They call for help and try to save themselves, only to hear their voices echoed by a cold, uncaring void or to be denied by cowardly, self-important cops. It's tough to watch. I also have this theory in regard to Von Trier’s quote that Jack is himself the embodiment of what he calls “life”, this ugly and duplicitous thing that keeps taking and taking from people. But that might be a stretch. There’s no direct allusion to it in the movie.
I liked The House That Jack Built as much as you can like a movie that’s not meant to be conventionally appreciated. But that’s why I enjoy the movies of Lars Von Trier in general. Because they force me out of conventional invest-yourself-in-the-protagonist-and-live-through-a-three-acts-journey-with-him storytelling. Not many directors do that anymore. The House That Jack Built is tough and perhaps not his most nuanced film, but it’s not exactly suffering from teenage nihilism either. It’s staring down an abyss through an uncomfortably familiar lens and I believe it deserves some credit for that.
* If you want to discuss it via email or social media, be my guest. It’s the part of The House That Jack Built I struggled with the most.
** And sometimes children. You have been warned.