*TRAILER CONTAINS VIOLENT IMAGERY
After being declared “persona non grata” at the Cannes Film Festival seven years ago for his flippant remark about sympathising with Hitler during the press conference for Melancholia, writer/director Lars von Trier returned in the boldest of fashions (out of competition though) with The House That Jack Built; “Whether we like it or not, we are dealing with a great film and a great filmmaker” stated the festival’s artistic director.
A great film this is not.
Met with the expected contradictory response of both lavish praise (the film reportedly earned a six-minute standing ovation) and brutal criticism (there were allegedly over 100 people that walked out in disgust) the film is proof that von Trier doesn’t need a press conference to stir the pot. Acting like a microphone that’s plugged into his own subconscious, Jack… acts as both some type of love letter to himself (he references his own back catalogue during one of the film’s many tireless speeches regarding artistic creation) and as a response to his detractors who often accuse his films of being overtly misogynistic.
Amongst all the self-pleasuring von Trier projects throughout the film’s excruciating 155 minute running time, there’s Jack (an effectively sinister Matt Dillon), an engineer (or is he an architect?) who moonlights as a serial killer. After briefly discussing with an unseen figure, Verge (Bruno Ganz), that he will be dissecting his murderous 12-year long career by choosing five incidents at random, we already get the sense that Verge is bored of Jack’s incessant ego and narcissism as he’s a figure (the devil?) that’s seen and heard it all before and nothing of note can shock him.
Almost as if von Trier was hoping he could shock the masses, each incident described becomes more and more elaborate in its execution; whilst Jack… is a violent, nasty film, von Trier has easily given us worse prior with Antichrist. Some of Jack’s works teeter on the verge of being darkly comedic, almost as if von Trier was hoping we’d let our guards down thinking that the violence taking place on screen is nowhere near as brutal as we are expecting, only so that we are unprepared for when he subjects us to sequences involving animal cruelty (a flashback to Jack’s childhood shows his psychotic tendencies started early) and the slaying of children (the 3rd incident sees Jack go on a hunting trip of sorts with a woman and her two sons – one guess as to who he’s hunting).
The aforementioned comedic moment takes place during the 2nd incident where Jack, posing as first a police officer and then an insurance salesman, strangles a dimwitted widow (Siobhan Fallon Hogan) to death, only for his OCD to kick into overdrive to the point that he returns countless times to the scene of the crime in a bid to wipe away any evidence possibly left behind; Jack’s insistence to the eventual examining officer that he thoroughly examine the scene plays out like a parody of a serial killer begging to be caught.
Whilst Jack… occasionally delivers, all too often does it appear to be lost in its own inner dialogue. As confessional as the film may be regarding issues of misogyny, it’s just as evasive as Jack is quick to point out to Verge, after being accused of only murdering women, that he’s an equal opportunist who kills men too. Except, apart from the aforementioned sequence involving the young children (both boys), we don’t explicitly see any of his supposed male-centric murders, and the women that are highlighted (which also includes Uma Thurman as an emasculating hitchhiker whose constant degrading of Jack results in a swift car-jack to the face in the film’s opening scene) are pegged as being overtly stupid.
In these times of #MeToo when cries of violence against women still, unfortunately, fall on deaf ears perhaps von Trier is making some kind of unexpected bold statement that people in actuality don’t entirely care. The 4th incident (arguably the vilest) where Jack mutilates a poor young woman he degradingly refers to as “Simple” (Riley Keough, delivering the film’s most organic performance) is preceded by her bloodcurdling screams for help being ignored by those around her, an observation that only drives home the unfortunate reality of female victims being disregarded – even when they are literally calling for help. Then again, right before Jack slices at the helpless woman’s body he aggressively states that “it’s always the man’s fault”, and whilst that’s a generalisation, it’s proven to be mostly true, and certainly doesn’t help von Trier endear himself to audiences, like myself, who are hoping that there’s more to this grisly opus than just the filmmaker having his cake, eating it too, and then force-feeding it to us in the process.
About The House That Jack Built
The House That Jack Built is a 2018 psychological horror film written and directed by Lars von Trier, starring Matt Dillon in the title role of Jack. The story follows Jack, a serial killer, over the course of 12 years in the 1970s and 1980s in the U.S. state of Washington.
The House That Jack Built (18+) is screening as part of the Brisbane International Film Festival, running from 11th – 21st October 2018.