Note: This is a discussion of the film as a whole and will contain spoilers as a result.
“The House That Jack Built” is a recent film by Lars Von Trier (Melancholia, Dancer in the Dark) that has inspired a broad difference of feeling and opinion across the world of cinema. The vast majority of critics for larger publications have slammed the movie as grotesquely violent and otherwise boring – quite the juxtaposition – and proceeded to not give much thought after the fact. Many, by their own admission, simply viewed the film once and were apparently so disgusted with it as a whole that they either couldn’t stomach another viewing or felt that it wouldn’t change their minds very much.
I have viewed the film twice, and found myself wondering if my ‘on-demand’ copy was somehow dramatically different from the one that many critics viewed at the Cannes Film Festival and subsequently derided for being too violent or obnoxious. The first thought that came to mind is how patently unintelligent it would be to judge a film upon it’s subject matter alone. This is a film about a serial killer – the titular Jack, played expertly by Matt Dillon – and so one might expect heinous levels of violence depicted in a way that is at least accurate if not a little over the top. Being surprised at any amount of violence in this film would be foolish, to say the least.
The film begins by showing us a black screen, and what is apparently a conversation between Jack (Dillon) and ‘Verge’ (Bruno Ganz), short for Virgil – the same Virgil responsible for the Aeneid, appropriately enough. Based upon what we were shown in the trailer, and the somewhat cryptic opening dialogue, we can understand that what follows is meant to be a confession of sorts, happening on a journey to somewhere – Hell, most likely – and Jack has selected five “incidents” from his life at random to relate to Virgil on their trek together. Beginning with the first story, we begin to see the film take the shape it will have for the majority of it’s 2 1/2 hour run-time; that is, Jack sharing with Virgil and the audience stories of his murders.
As Jack begins sharing the stories of his incidents with Virgil, a relationship begins to form between the two, though it isn’t until the last 20 minutes or so that you ever actually see them on-screen together – only their voices as they discuss various things. These stories are told from Jack’s point of view – that of a psychopath and a serial killer, so naturally there’s no room for anyone else apart from himself and those he views as his prey. What is remarkable about the way these stories are told is how strongly Von Trier harnesses the power of perspective in order to truly tell the story from where Jack is sitting. Even more remarkable is that Von Trier never once aestheticizes the act of killing or seeks to paint the killer as anything other than a ‘depraved human being’, to quote Virgil. Unlike almost every other film or series on the topic, murder is never given even vain praise and the killer isn’t some tortured or misunderstood genius, or even an apex predator.
It’s here that Von Trier begins to play with our expectations about this type of film as well as that type of person or character. We’ve already had the stereotype of the serial-killer upended by the astoundingly regular Jack, though what Dillon manages to command here really is something remarkable. Uma Thurman’s character, the film’s first victim, even makes fun of the slasher/thriller genre as a whole by narrating in detail precisely how Jack could kill her and get away with it. In the same way that Christian Bale gave us the over-the-top Patrick Bateman for American Psycho, Dillon gives us something far more different and in many ways more believable. Where Bateman was prone to sudden bursts of mania, anger and anxiety, Jack exists as a pathetic and almost sniveling counter-point. He is shown in several scenes as taking magazine clippings of models and actors with various facial expressions and gluing them to the wall surrounding a mirror, so that he might practice imitating authentic human emotion – something he is incapable of feeling or expressing. At first we believe this is solely so that Jack might trick his victims or evade suspicion cast upon him by the authorities, but once again Von Trier has included this so that we might feel something akin to disgust or revulsion at Jack, as those two words best describe watching a human mimic human emotions into a mirror – as well as profoundly disturbing.
I can understand the reasoning behind the walkouts at the Cannes Film Festival, as the imagery in many of the scenes is indeed graphic and unsettling. The camera seldom cuts away from direct acts of violence and gore, and the scene often lends itself to the most advantageous view of these acts. While many have slammed the film for attempting to ‘shock’ audiences or going for ‘cheap gore’, I think the underlying importance is that we are meant to suffer and recoil through each – in sharp and direct contrast to a contented Jack. It is somewhat disappointing to hear, however, that professional media critics couldn’t stomach these scenes in order to relish the film’s denouement and gain a true understanding for all the things they’d just witnessed. There is most certainly commentary intended by Von Trier here – that you would willingly attend something and instantly be repelled by the inclusion of the obvious subject matter of violence. But as the credits rolled, I began to question what, precisely, I had just subjected myself to and watched it again pretty much right away.
Much of your experience will be subjective here, with everyone taking away perhaps something different and unique – and make no mistake, the film itself does deliver some of the most convincing and graphic violence that I’ve ever seen on a screen. But there are so many layers and levels of story here, that when paired with Von Trier’s masterful command of imagery and the clever use of editing, multiple viewings are not only warranted, but are probably required.
I really can’t recommend this film enough, and it came just in time for me to declare it one of the best of 2018, if not the most daring and bold film of the year. Lars Von Trier has accomplished something truly special here, and I can assure you that you will never see another film quite like this one for a very long while, if at all. What starts as a film about a serial killer quickly becomes a film about two entities discussing the value and nature of human life by using metaphors about grapes and culling animal populations. You really cannot miss out on this film, and please don’t be put off by the depictions of violence – this movie deserves to be seen in it’s entirety.