REVIEW: The House That Jack Built

Full warning, very much like the titular film, there will be naughty language in this review… I mean, how could I remain normal after this mind fuck?

The House That Jack Built centres on a serial killer referred to as Jack existing over a twelve year span where his homicidal tendencies begin to coincide with his architectural passion to construct himself a home.

Fucking hell was this film insane… Lars Von Trier’s newest feature, The House That Jack Built, left me swarming in an indescribable state of oxymoronic thought patterns, littered with confusion, disgust and passion. I will be honest: I saw The House That Jack Built at the cinema over a week ago now and have taken this long to really decide on what my exact thoughts were on the film. Being a von Trier work, I entered the cinema with various expectations on the already promised absurdity of the film… but I do not think I could have ever expected what I got. Fuck.

If you don’t know Lars von Trier, the Danish filmmaker has been wildly regarded as the most controversial voice in modern day cinema. Having been banned from Cannes Film Festival for the summation of a year and briefly voicing rather shaky opinions on Hitler and the Nazi party, von Trier has alienated a many audiences throughout the span of his career. Constantly pushing boundaries in cinema by exploring themes of serious depression and existential discourse whilst equally polluting his films with highly distasteful, inhumanely and downright vile imagery, von Trier is the perfect example of an artist who shows no boundaries in his work. Having only just completed an unofficial trilogy of films highlighting the theme of depression, including AntichristMelancholia and Nymphomaniac (you may have heard of them), The House That Jack Built uncomfortably switches the tone and atmosphere of his work until the audience find themselves in a place of pleasurable discomfort, both challenging and unnerving.

Like I said, von Trier is a filmmaker known for his controversial concepts and consequential imagery. Audiences and critics debate whether his work is actually “art” by an auteur or just a mad man poking the bear and furtherly trying to stir a reaction in society through the most horrific cinema possible. True that in most respects von Trier has become recognised largely as a reactionary filmmaker – a big “FU” artist who films whatever the fuck he pleases and hardly suffers the consequences, because, well, his films are controversial enough to spark endless conversation whenever a new one is released. The House That Jack Built may be his most hotly debated film in years as people ask the question… was any of it necessary? The House That Jack Built is truthfully one of the most brutal, carnage-induced, self-aggrandizing works I have seen from a filmmaker in years, incorporating triggering imagery of historical murders and genocides in association with literal art and global icons. The House That Jack Built is an easy target for anyone to dismiss as pretentious violent garbage with no real meaning to any of the violence displayed… but I have to disagree.

Truth of the matter is, I FUCKING loved this film. For months I have critiqued movie after movie after movie, with formulaic structures, uninventive framework and nothing nuance enough to make any of them last as a modern classic. Seeing The House That Jack Built honestly had me taken aback at first, but the more and more I thought on it and let the film marinate on my mind, the more I realised that von Trier’s newest psychologically disturbed character study was the breath of fresh air I heavily needed.

And that’s what The House That Jack Built basically was, in its most distilled form: a character study. The film dealt with the dissection of, controversially, an artist. The titular Jack, an OCD struck, wannabe architect was explored in the context of the film as a frantic artist of sorts, seeking a means of validation as a voice in the art world.

Not to spoil the film by any sorts, but to rather break it down in simple terms to ensure audiences give The House That Jack Built a fighting chance before turning their backs on it completely; von Trier’s film dissects the inner demons and depravity of a man seeking fame and acknowledgement through attention provoking acts… but the ugly truth is, nobody cares.

Bret Eastern Ellis’ American Psycho explored consumerism of the white American in 1980s Wall Street, by depicting a psycho killer who went so far as to literally consume people and their identities in order to fit into a materialistic society. The psycho killer’s eventual attempts at a confession to prove his uniqueness in a community of white collared consumeristic yuppies would then prove to continuously fail due to said society’s complete commitment to their material lifestyles, blinding them to uniqueness – blinding them to a true consumeristic psychopath blending into society from within their midst. American Psycho followed a murderer trying to gain recognition as a somebody in a world of nobodies, only to fail because nobody cares… I believe von Trier has attempted to enact the same basic study to The House That Jack Built if not slightly more expositional, bloated and rearranged.

The House That Jack Built separated itself into five “Incidents” with each novel-like chapter detailing a different gruesome murder. The film was also then interlaced with a series of conversations between Jack and an offscreen character named Verge as the two discussed topics on life and death, heaven and hell and art. Where The House That Jack Built officially begun was amidst the film’s protagonist begrudgingly granting help to a woman with both car trouble and (you’d better believe) a broken jack. What followed was a very on-the-nose, corny conversation on Jack showing signs of being a possible serial killer and, wouldn’t you know it, we have the start of a promising character study.

From the beginning of the film, we come to acknowledge Jack as a very broken, unfixable man. A serial killer with serious ego and misplaced purpose, Jack himself states through a significant line that “some people claim […] the atrocities we commit in our fiction are those inner desires we cannot commit in our controlled civilisation, so they are expressed, instead, through our art”… Jack, however, goes on to admit proudly that he does not agree with said statement, believing that “heaven and hell are one in the same”. Jack stands to blur the lines between rights and wrongs – believing there to be no true difference between heaven and hell or violent art and violent reality. Jack is constantly seen throughout the film trying to build a house to no avail – a heavenly artform he cannot quite master and receives hardly any attention for attempting to. In contrast though, Jack’s ability to effectively kill in new and inventive ways, almost promises him a sense of satisfaction and an eventual, hopeful, claim to fame.

Make no mistake, the constant repetitive use of David Bowie’s “Fame” being played throughout the film was indeed an intentional move on von Trier’s part; the lines preached by Bowie presented various keys to cracking the infinite rich meanings of The House That Jack Built. “Fame makes a man take things over” – Jack’s power-hungry with an unquenchable thirst for his very own slice of fame, leading him to do ghastly acts in order to gain said recognition. “Fame lets him loose, hard to swallow” – Jack’s quite literally let loose, committing horrific crimes to gain a name, which, for the audience is hard to swallow in all its gory imagery. “Fame puts you there where things are hollow” – the more killings Jack commits, the less human he becomes as the killer never learns that gaining a legacy further rids you of finding true fulfilment.

The film has Jack look to certain icons in his preconceived world of art as inspirations for his “work” like notably Bob Dylan. However the icons grow more depraved and sickening as the film continues, turning to individuals like Adolf Hitler, almost glorifying acts like the Holocaust and placing them on par with musical accomplishments and photographic genius through history. The idea that Jack blurs lines between art and reality, believing in a realm where death is as poetic as life and the two come hand in hand in essentially creating a beautiful dark twisted fantasy really helps to fuel the debate of what art truly is. And if art is not ethical, can it still be called “art”? Which then directs this film to what I feel it is ultimately about…

Like I said The House That Jack Built is a character study following a serial killer but about an artist and although Jack is our protagonist, I felt the character was very much just a stand-in for the main artist, behind the scenes: Lars von Trier. If anything, I truly believed The House That Jack Built was a self-portrait of von Trier, himself.

When naming icons throughout the film, von Trier featured imagery from his very own filmography to almost drive home the idea that he too should be included amongst history’s greatest, but most controversial, artists. Sure, a pretentious move from von Trier to reference himself in his own film, yet its obvious the director already has a built-in ego with himself being credited for outlandish material in the credits for The House That Jack Built and equally having himself feature on the film’s posters. Patrick Batemen in American Psycho grew desperate for the world to acknowledge his uniqueness through acts of pure evil (almost like a cry for help) as von Trier in The House That Jack Built utilised his protagonist, Jack, to similarly push the boundaries of art as far as possible to stir a reaction and gain recognition himself.

Von Trier wants fame – he wants acceptance – and in The House That Jack Built he gave reason for why his filmography has continued to usher in constant controversial conversation. Jack’s self-titled killer name “Mr. Sophistication” and his concluding red costuming, insinuates a gentlemanly determination, mirroring von Trier’s climb to prominence. Von Trier’s filmography resembles a series of sins – of murders – so disturbing and confronting that audiences have no choice but to passionately react to it all. Serial killers feed off the public’s fascination with their psychology as von Trier wishes to operate off the same general premise – von Trier feeds into the public’s perverse fascination with the darkest elements of humanity like depression, existentialism, lust and, of course, murder and, consequently, death. He glorifies, or at least wallows in these difficult fields because, like a serial killer, he knows that people will react – his name will become notorious because society is unable to oversee the life’s ugliest truths.

In Dante’s Inferno, funnily enough, criminals and artists occupy the same fields of hell as one another – as if the legacies of either gained in life are interchangeable. Jack’s philosophy that the horrors of fiction and the horrors of reality are one in the same appear true of von Trier; nowadays to gain fame, name or legacy one doesn’t even have to essentially create “art” but instead commit the most depraved of acts to assure immortality. Crime has become the art of the 20th and 21st century; criminals live on beyond death because the public allow them to. Humans who create great art like musicians, architects and filmmakers sit within the same camp as mass murders and further criminals, gaining legacy because society placed them all on the same pedestal of names who once in their life clambered to fame… and succeeded, but not all for the best of reasons. Von Trier appears to have argued through his filmography: ‘why create great art when you can just show people an act of inhumanity? Both conclude in never-ending legacy’. The house that Jack built is quite literally the filmography von Trier has come to build over a matter of decades as the great auteur asks the audience if what he has built is truly art or just depraved sinful onscreen behaviour… either way von Trier is seeking fame – and he has seemingly got just that. Lars von Trier, whether you like it or not, has become an icon.

(Empire 2018)

So from the basis of The House That Jack Built, yes I think von Trier is a reactionary filmmaker and yes, I think The House That Jack Built was meant to, by design, cause reactions of either love or hate and nothing in-between. Moving into the more technical elements of The House That Jack Built, this movie was rendered masterfully. Although you could complain about the film’s overlong runtime and expositional narration, I felt The House That Jack Built gained uniqueness through these preconceived negatives. The charming but unnerving voice of a serial killer dragging one deeper and deeper into their psychology over the course of twelve years really added to the atmosphere of von Trier’s piece. The film was gloomy but strangely comical at points leaving a guilty, oxymoronic taste in one’s mouth.

And although I said The House That Jack Built was humorous at points, the film managed to drop a 180 on its audience every time it strayed too close to being comical. The House That Jack Built was overly sickening at points; even for me, a seasoned filmgoer, nothing ever truly fazes me in films anymore concerning horror, but some of the imagery in The House That Jack Built literally made me rather faint in the head. A specific “picnic” segment – in fact the entire third “Incident” – was some of the most confronting cinema I have ever seen… like ever.

I’m being serious guys, The House That Jack Built had literal walkouts during my session. People who enjoyed the first half of the film came to grow visibly sickened as the runtime evolved and the Arthouse picture descended deeper and deeper into wickedness. Yet, as much as I wanted to turn away at points, I quite simply couldn’t.

The filmmaking in The House That Jack Built was remarkable. The production design, costuming, hairstyling, make-up, cinematography, score – just everything about this film worked so well. As Thom Yorke said, “everything in its right place”, and yeah The House That Jack Built knew exactly how to construct itself narratively, thematically and technically. The handheld camera shots and classical music all led to the film inhabiting callbacks to psychological thrillers of the past like A Clockwork Orange. Von Trier’s love for ancient paintings also resurfaced in the imagery for The House That Jack Built. Similar to Melancholia‘s cinematography riffing off John Everett Millais’ “Ophelia”, The House That Jack Built played off Eugène Delacroix’s “The Barque Of Dante” which heavily assisted in the film’s overall allusions to Dante’s Inferno.

With a unexpected final act that not only reframed the entirety of the film but also brought von Trier’s trademark Arthouse aesthetic back to the big screen, there were hardly any faults when it came to The House That Jack Built… at least for me. This film was definitely not for anyone and everyone – The House That Jack Built catered to a specific audience and not just to those with iron stomachs. In my opinion, you have had to have been aware of von Trier as an artist and a person before entering this film to fully appreciate and understand it. If you do not enter The House That Jack Built with any previous knowledge of the man behind the camera, I honestly think you would either be lost as a viewer or sickened by the repetitive violence on display… the violence… oh the violence.

Let me just set this straight, some of the imagery in The House That Jack Built was absolutely vile. I was just in utter shock for so much of this film to the point that when I left the cinema, I was speechless for at least an hour. Images of brutality burnt into my mind for which I will never be able to forget – you honestly need to be ready before watching this film, because The House That Jack Built went to some insane places. In fact, The House That Jack Built could best be summarised visually as David Fincher’s Se7en if watched from the perspective of Kevin Spacey committing the murders on screen… actually, come to think of it, the film may have been even darker than that…

Still though, like I said, The House That Jack Built was darkly funny in moments, mainly brought out by the ingenious talent of the film’s lead, Matt Dillon. In maybe his best performance ever, Dillon’s rendition of Jack was everything people find fascinating and freighting about a real serial killer. Dillon never appeared to be above hamming up his performance in the darkest of scenes whilst playing it subtle in the coldest of moments. His comedic timing was equally on par with every other sequence he was given a platform to shine in (a specific moment of black comedy gold came at point where Jack was almost caught by police after his OCD had him return to a crime scene multiple times to attempt a proper clean up). Dillon was just incredible in The House That Jack Built and should not by any chance go unnoticed in his tour-de-force performance.

On the subject of actors though, von Trier’s casting of the elderly Verge with Bruno Ganz was a stroke of genius in my books for several reasons. Not only did Ganz, in the mainly voice role he kept to, almost stood level to Dillon in commitment to his role, but the history Ganz has an actor in relation to his character in The House That Jack Built really elevated the film’s material. If you’re unaware, Ganz is most notable for portraying Hitler in Downfall (you know that meme of Hitler going apeshit in his office – yeah that’s Bruno Ganz) and since Ganz’s character, Verge, in The House That Jack Built was the only being who could speak any reason to Jack, created a subconsciously interesting dynamic between the two. If Jack idolised Hitler and, in another film, Ganz portrayed Hitler… I’m not saying anything; I just think that the casting of Ganz was certainly intentional. Good attention to detail should not go unnoticed.

So to attempt to summarise all my complex thoughts on The House That Jack Built… fuck me, I really can’t. People can say, “oh its too long” or “oh its too graphic” or “oh its too pretentious”, but you know what, that’s fine – I recognise something special when I see it. The House That Jack Built was specifically rendered to confront and not just through its imagery but also through its jarring, unnatural structure and unique approach to filmmaking. If you want to hate me for loving and defending this serial killer love letter, then fine, but honestly… this was just what the doctor ordered.

The House That Jack Built is, in fact… LOST ART


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