‘The House That Jack Built’ | Film Review

December 15, 2018
Jonathon Wilson 0
Film, Film Reviews


In The House That Jack Built, our most consistently audacious auteur-provocateur examines himself, his art, and the accusations of misanthropy and misogyny that have come to define both.



In The House That Jack Built, our most consistently audacious auteur-provocateur examines himself, his art, and the accusations of misanthropy and misogyny that have come to define both.

Jack (Matt Dillon), the obsessive-compulsive serial killer whose home is built and demolished and rebuilt several times throughout The House That Jack Built, is not a particularly smart man. But he believes himself to be smarter than everyone that he meets, which I suspect can also be said of most provocateur filmmakers who consider themselves above taste, decency, and liberal complaining. But it can’t be said of Lars von Trier, the cackling conman of contemporary cinema, who here descends through the circles of Hell and the rings of a personal circus to make a middle-finger of a point, thrust defiantly and triumphantly at his many detractors. Lars von Trier, quite simply, doesn’t care about your whining.

His films might be humourless, but you can almost hear him laughing from off-camera, endlessly entertained by the idea that his most deliberately challenging and confrontational works are dismissed for being challenging and confrontational. When The House That Jack Built played at Cannes, it prompted both standing ovations and mass walk-outs. The outpouring of think-pieces began, as those who believed they saw von Trier’s demented genius and those who insisted there was no genius to be found both took up their righteous rackets and swatted temperamental arguments across the internet’s low, low net of discourse. The wind-up merchant of Venice Film Festival must have loved that.

And why not? By drawing explicit parallels between artistry and murder, by mocking sexual politics and fondling hot-button social issues, and by responding to accusations against one’s own character with an indifferent shrug, von Trier isn’t so much interrogating his own artistic impulses as acknowledging they exist and that he’s proud of them; that, perhaps more importantly, he’ll continue to flaunt them as long as they continue to provoke the disgust and resentment he so obviously craves. He isn’t courting validation, but attention, in whatever form it takes. The problem is that his work is difficult to ignore.

The House That Jack Built is more obviously intended to offend than almost any other film von Trier has made, but it can’t simply be dismissed as thoughtless provocation, because it contains at least one sequence – a Hell of a finale – that ranks among the very best of von Trier’s controversial filmography. And what he has managed to accomplish here and there, and perhaps more importantly who he has managed to accomplish it with, commands your attention. One of the first stops along Jack’s brutal evolution as a murderer occurs when he picks up a woman who has a flat tire, and the woman continuously mocks and berates him and behaves so stupidly that she kind of has her fate coming. This isn’t remarkable in itself, but the woman is played, quite enthusiastically, by Uma Thurman, who has hardly been quiet about her relationships with male auteur filmmakers.

Jack beats Thurman’s character to death with a tire jack, which is a kind of low-brow look-at-#MeToo meta-statement; his other murders – the film chronicles five of his most formative, referred to dispassionately as “incidents” – are less cheeky but more sadistic. He guns down a family on a hunting expedition, maims a duckling in a distressingly real-looking flashback to his childhood and tosses it back into the water to watch it flail in distress, and at one point – this was the one that people really got bees in their bonnets about – nicknames Riley Keough “Simple” and lops off one of her breasts. He tells her he’s going to do it; before, he allows her to scream for help at the door and windows, and predictably nobody cares enough to intervene.

Throughout the film’s much-too-long runtime, Jack’s persistent interlocutor is a man known as Verge (Bruno Ganz), not at all subtly modelled on Dante’s Virgil, to whom he explains his theories about architecture and European art and history and how they all relate, in some way, to murder. To create art, he insists, is to take life; violence and misery exist on the same spectrum of human experience as wonder and joy, and to truly experience either extreme one must understand and come to terms with its opposite. A lot of this is, admittedly, tedious and reiterative nonsense. But it coalesces into an underlying theme that tracks with the deliberate button-pushing of von Trier’s work, and his obvious contempt for posturing moral puritans, whose objections he sees as superficial and disingenuous.

So, if The House That Jack Built has a point – and I’m not entirely sure it does – then this is it: No matter how brazenly transgressions are committed, and despite how noisily and publically people might feign outrage over them, what really remains is just indifference. Nobody is as concerned as they pretend to be. Jack doesn’t display his victims in grisly tableau, or drag them behind his car so that their faces leave a winding smear of blood and brain right back to his walk-in freezer hideout, because he wants to get caught. He does it because he knows he won’t be. He’s more entertaining when he’s left at large. In that sense, perhaps The House That Jack Built is an allegory for Lars von Trier’s career after all.


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