Published on December 14th, 2018 | by Dan Nicholls0
The House That Jack Built
Lars von Trier is back with another controversial film. Is it controversy for its own sake or is it good enough to go beyond that?
Infamous writer/director Lars von Trier’s movies always arrive amid a cloud of controversy. Every damn time out of the gate he pushes buttons and The House That Jack Built continues his streak of repulsive and challenging material. Fans of the filmmaker’s output to date will consider it another triumph while viewers who haven’t drunk the Kool-Aid aren’t going to be enticed to take a sip now.
The titular sadistic serial killer, played with more conviction than the part deserves by Matt Dillon, leaves his ego off the leash and unchecked. The film explores “incidents” that follow five random murders perpetrated by Jack as told via voice over dialogue between Jack and a man named Verge (Bruno Ganz). The first incident follows Jack as he picks up a stranded driver (Uma Thurman) whom he eventually bashes in the face repeatedly with a tire jack. In another he cons an older woman into letting him into her home and finishes it all off by dragging her body behind his van on a drive to his secret storage freezer, where he will keep her corpse alongside 60+ others. In case you haven’t picked up on it, The House That Jack Built is pretty fucked up.
The biggest takeaway from all five incidents is that the film seems to strongly believe that women are extremely stupid. The female characters are not treated with any care or consideration and exist solely to be shamed, beaten, and killed. Verge questions this thesis once but Jack insists he isn’t exaggerating – the women he’s murdered just really are that stupid. He also argues for proof of divine intervention to account for his ability to remain uncaught. So perhaps Jack’s got it all wrong, but we aren’t given anything to support any suggestion that would contradict his actions.
It would be easier to dismiss the violence as simply shock value if it didn’t feel so cruel. The fact that the murders are treated as jokey gags at times adds to the flippant attitude the film takes towards women. It’s one thing to make a movie featuring horrible images in the name of art – depiction is not endorsement and many artists strive to find human truth in dark places. It’s another thing when art is used as a disguise for a manifesto pushing hate.
It’s perhaps an unfair conclusion to jump to but it’s difficult to believe that Lars von Trier doesn’t advocate his text when he stamps his work with his name – and only his name – before the title. Not “A film by…” or anything, it’s just his name. But then again, maybe everything is just an expression and deep down he truthfully doesn’t love Nazis and hate women. Whatever the man believes is irrelevant in the face of a movie that should be viewed without context. But it’s harder to escape with von Trier than it is with others due to the extremes his work pushes on you. The art versus artist debate continues.
I can kind of imagine von Trier riding away with a depraved laugh as streams of disturbed viewers walk out en masse from The House That Jack Built. Provocation for the sake of being provocative seems to be part and parcel with anything he creates. The man’s reputation precedes him and lingers around the room after he’s left. Some always have and always will hail him as a genius while others have written him off without a second glance. But it’s possible to exist in the middle, to appreciate the striking imagery and clever dialogue while being turned off by what he’s got to say. Its cinematography in particular is of note and the film’s final 15 minutes or so are intellectually articulate and surprising. But it’s a long tunnel of filth (152 minutes’ worth) to crawl through for such minor rewards.