The House That Jack Built is a glimpse inside its creator’s busy and troubled brain.
Lars von Trier is arguably the most infamous provocateur in cinema; he’s certainly the most high-profile provocateur, a comically brash personality with an unsettled upbringing, who can somehow secure major talent for all of his whacked out stories of extreme psychosis and depravity. All of his films, in some form or another, are a look inside von Trier’s busy head, where memories of his mother’s deception, manic depression and alcoholism, his fascination with Nazis, and his early days directing hardcore porn all crash into one another and spill out in harsh examinations of tragedy (Antichrist), existentialism (Melancholia), and sex (the Nymphomaniac films).
It should be no surprise to anyone willing to watch The House That Jack Built that it is depraved and deeply disturbing in a few scenes. That’s what you’re getting when you push play on a von Trier joint. But this film is, more than any of his other films, Lars von Trier purging himself of all the shortcomings and failures he sees in his career and, ultimately, his life.
Jack, our nebbish, bottled-up serial killer with some serious OCD, is played by Matt Dillon. Dillon has been out of the spotlight for what feels like more than a decade, so it’s nice to see him in a substantial role he can sink his teeth in. And his knife blade. Dillon is in every scene, and gets the opportunity to play seemingly different characters throughout.
The film is broken up into five “incidents,” which is what Jack calls them when he’s telling his tale to a mysterious older voice in act breaks and tangents, sometimes accompanied with animation. The first incident is the one most have seen in clips, with Uma Thurman, but other victims include the terrific character actress Sioban Fallon Hogan, Danish star Sofie Gråbøl, and Riley Keough. The early scenes are violent, but fleeting and manageable, nothing too intense. But it’s all a setup. If you can make it past the shocking sequence at right about the halfway point, a stomach-churning scene involving a “family” and a hunting rifle, you might be able to hold on and make it through the harrowing second half. No warning here can be strong enough.
Jack gets more brazen and takes more risks as he continues killing and butchering his victims. He smashes in their faces, strangles them, shoots them, hits them with cars… all just to see if he can. He has a freezer where he keeps the bodies, and he treats each incident as a canvas for which he can paint his art. Every murder is photographed and manicured to look like something specific for Jack. This is all von Trier, commenting on his own tumultuous career as a provocateur, and he’s incredulous that it keeps going no matter what he tries.
Over his career, Lars von Trier has kept pushing the limit of what he will try in a film, and he keeps getting away with it. Each of these incidents is von Trier confessing something, like how he’s been cruel to women (which stems from his mother), or how his obsessions have ruined his personal relationships – and his family, as exemplified in the nightmare scene in the middle – and how he’s seemingly gotten away with producing these sorts of movies for three decades.
Time and time again, Jack is able to stammer himself into a woman’s home, to stumble out of suspicion with police, to move frozen bodies in and out of an apartment complex undetected. A fortuitous rain storm washes away a miles-long stream of blood and brain. He keeps getting away with it, so he keeps trying, getting stronger. All the while, Jack’s attempts at building a home are thwarted by his dissatisfaction and crippling OCD. It’s easy to see the metaphors spraying blood all over the screen, or visualized by a house that fails to come together because murderous obsession steals all of Jack’s time.
Like most of von Trier’s films, The House That Jack Built is a little bloated and a little cluttered, and it goes on far too long. It’s a metaphorical journey through hangups most people already knew about the filmmaker, but it’s still interesting to see how the creator sees his own creation and embraces his own psychological issues with a furious ego dump. Lars von Trier seems like the sort of person who will corner you at a party and tell you insane theories about the darkest corners of the human soul, and about Nazis and his mother and porn, beating you senseless with insufferable ramblings until you can fake a phone call or have someone stealthily rescue you from his clutches.
That doesn’t sound appealing, and The House That Jack Built is, like most of von Trier’s films, not a lot of fun. But it’s a it of morbid fascination to see what sort of insanity he can cook up from picture to picture, and there is no denying the immaculate craftsmanship on display. As long as he wants to keep trying to make these insane movies, and get terrific unfettered performances from greats like Matt Dillon, it’s worth a shot to see if you can push play and make it to the end.
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