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Review: Lars Von Trier’s The House That Jack Built

Lars Von Trier is a sadist, and I’m sure he would agree with me on that point. He is probably the leading provocateur in cinema today. He can manipulate his audience by going from one extreme to the next without hesitation, at one point you could be laughing, while soon after you could be turning away in disgust. The House That Jack Built is Von Trier’s latest attempt at provocation, but it is such a thinly veiled exercise in artistic self-reflection, I was turned off by its ego and lack of empathy.

The lack of empathy might be expected in the film, seeing how it’s about a serial killer. Jack (Matt Dillon) is the titular character going about murdering different people in different circumstances. At the beginning of the film he’s quite a compelling character even amusing. Von Trier lets us identify with Jack much like Hitchcock did with Norman Bates in Psycho, he comes off as rather sympathetic.

The House That Jack Built 4

The film is broken up into five sections, or as Jack puts it “Five incidents”, each one depicting one of his murders and the idea behind them. The first couple of incidents are rather abrupt, and Von Trier adds elements of dark humour and tension within them. By the time we get to the third incident, there is a switch to the nasty and depraved as we watch Jack toying with a woman and her two children before he sadistically does away with them. Things get even more unsavory from there.

There is a sub plot involving Jack trying to build a house. He’s usually able to get a skeleton of a house completed, before he realizes it’s not what he wants and he has to start all over again. There is also a constant voice over in dialogue happening throughout the film between Jack and a mysterious man known as Verge (Bruno Ganz). Jack explains to Verge his methods and how he sees his victims as works of art, and the men sometimes have debates as to what makes great art.

Jack seems to find the beauty in the decay and death of humanity, and Von Trier emphasizes this point by juxtaposing it with images of the great monsters of history like Hitler or Mussolini showing their atrocities as works of art. It’s hard not to see this and not think back to the 2011 Cannes film festival where Von Trier made the tasteless joke of saying he sympathized with Hitler. Sometimes I felt this whole film was just him trying to explain what he meant by that comment.

It became abundantly clear that the character of Jack is a bit of a conduit to explain Von Trier’s cinema to us. Jack’s atrocities are like Von Trier’s aesthetic, shocking, violent and dehumanizing. Jack can’t finish his house because he can’t work with the conventional tools, his home is a world of rotting corpses which he can mold into whatever he wants, for him that’s where he finds his art.

The House That Jack Built

Von Trier is kind of doing the same thing with his films, he even makes it even blatantly clear when he inserts scenes from his own earlier films into this one as Jack is talking about his love for the grotesque and decay of the world. There is a sense that he’s aware of his misdeeds, but he’s careful not to condemn them. If anything he might show a need to move past these ideas as might be hinted in the film’s final moments and the cheeky use of the song “Hit the Road Jack” in the end credits.

The problem of this self-awareness is it lacks any real insight, Von Trier rejects any change, he would rather wallow in human misery. Take his treatment towards women in the film. At one point Verge calls out Jack that his murders tend to favor women and they are depicted as ignorant and stupid. Jack states that women are easier to manipulate and fool even though he says he murders men equally.

This seemed to me the meanderings of an unapologetic misogynist and narcissist. Coming from the mouth of a serial killer, it could be taken in context of the character, but by this time it’s so obvious Jack is Von Trier’s mouthpiece, it feels more like a clear confession by the director on his own thoughts on women.

The House That Jack Built has few redeeming qualities. Save for a brilliant performance by Matt Dillon, who, had he been given a real character to work with and not variations of the Von Trier psyche, one wonders what he could’ve done with it.

Looking back at the film, I am reminded of some of the great depictions of serial killers of past films such as Norman Bates, Hannibal Lecter, and Patrick Bateman, all of whom were more interesting than Jack. The difference being they were real characters and not manifestations of the male ego of its creator.

It might be speculative of me to insert Von Trier in the role of Jack, perhaps too much so. He is after all an artist who can take liberties, but there is such an apparent knowing, and audience winking in this film I feel the idea of a meta commentary isn’t so far-fetched. Von Trier is celebrating himself in every frame, it’s not about Jack, or the people he butchers, it’s about him.

The House That Jack Built

Everyone in the film is just a product of his own narcissism and ego that he has created. It’s his rules, his world, and we are meant to suffer with him. I wasn’t going to play his game, I suffered, but it was the same kind of suffering I felt from watching a speech by Donald Trump or one of his minions going on about how great he is. It’s an inflated male ego steering the boat, and we are meant to recognize his greatness and complexities, give me a break.

This will probably be the last film by  Von Trier I see, unless I get a real film critic job some day and I’m actually paid to go see one. I don’t find what he says to be all that profound, he is disappointed in the world and he wallows in its decay. If that’s what he wants to do, he certainly has that right, I also have the right to not be impressed and raise myself up from his depravity. I hope some day he’s able to do the same.

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