Evil Is Art, Murder Is Art, Torture Is Art: On Lars von Trier's 'The House that Jack Built'
It isn't entirely irredeemable, but The House that Jack Built's familiar gimmicks say much more about Lars von Trier as a brand than as a provocateur or artist.
The House that Jack Built
Lars von Trier
14 Dec 2018 (US)Other
Lars von Trier's latest film has been gestating publicly for quite a while. After the mixed reception of his two-volume 2013 sex epic Nymphomaniac (not to mention the fury caused by his famous remarks expressing joking sympathy with Hitler at Cannes in 2011), his name had perhaps surpassed recognition as a critically beloved auteur and morphed into a simplified symbol of provocation and controversy.
Von Trier's films, spanning four decades, have always been groundbreaking both in form and content. Breaking the Waves (1996) starring Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgård, told a morally complex tale about a childlike Scottish woman while adhering to the fuzzy, low-budget aesthetic of the Dogme 95 movement he helped found in the '90s. Antichrist (2010) more than a decade later, followed Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe on a darkly surreal adventure through grief, death and chaos. Violence is central to both films, as is mental anguish and a sense of fatalistic existentialism. It's no surprise, then, that his latest effort, The House that Jack Built, doubles down on those themes.
The film's plot details have been out there for years, and in this case the anticipation that builds leads to a finished product remarkable in its visual audacity but unsurprising on a narrative basis. Like other von Trier films, The House that Jack Built is separated into chapters; in this case, the chapters correspond to one of the titular killer's (Matt Dillon) victims. The first is a woman (Uma Thurman) stranded on the road who begs Jack for a ride to the gas station. He begrudgingly does so, and she immediately mocks him for looking like a serial killer, even going as far as asking him what he'd use to kill her. Turns out there's a car jack in the front seat, and, well, he eventually uses it to bash her head in, fulfilling the prophecy.
Bruno Ganz as Verge, Matt Dillon as Jack (IMDB)
A bit on the nose? Maybe. The developments likely aren't meant to be unexpected, especially as Jack tells us (via self-aggrandizing narration, of course) much about his own psychopathy, quite straightforwardly, throughout the entire film. This isn't necessarily a problem, except for the fact that, as von Trier's comes into the twilight of his career, viewers are likely expecting more than a few well-shot but otherwise unremarkable murder scenes. For a man whose work has consistently broken new cinematic ground, serial murder, already a fixture in films everywhere, proves less impressive in action than it does as a bid toward all-out visual splendor.
Unsurprisingly, The House that Jack Built's visual elements are its strongest. Dillon's chiseled, aging face is disarming but creepy, provoking an inner sense of dread (his measured, occasionally comic performance has the same effect) and, like Panos Cosmatos's Mandy, released earlier this year, the vibrant blood reds make for a uniquely intense visual experience. Also interesting are the didactic bits of art history and philosophy, illustrated on screen with paintings and graphic renderings and delivered to us by way of Jack's ceaseless monologue. The same technique can be found throughout von Trier's previous work (notably in Nymphomaniac), and it again contains some of the more noteworthy sequences here. Yet in place of empathy or genuine curiosity, the animated sideshows do little more than attempt to validate Jack's, and by extension, von Trier's, philosophy of art. That philosophy is this: Evil is art. Murder is art. Torture is art.
It may be unfair to equate Jack's beliefs with von Trier's, but the film strongly hints at a direct relationship between the two. It's likely that von Trier has never killed anyone, and yet his private and public lives, both riddled with dysfunction, are isolating in the same way that being a psychopath would be. In films and in real life, many troubled boys and men turn to violence in order to find a sense of control and revenge. In von Trier's case, this is either a horrifying insinuation or a rather desperate bid toward controversy. Unfortunately for the filmmaker, it's pretty apparent which case rings true.
The House that Jack Built is controversial, of course, by virtue of focusing on a man who ruthlessly slaughters his own family and several others (namely, women) and attempts to hold it up as a masterful work of art. But even that controversy is easy to get past, simply because Jack's arguments are weak and self-serving. We all know, with the #MeToo movement well upon us, that abuse and harassment aren't tantamount to making great art and that the long-standing equation of art and suffering is a bogus one. Sure, terrible people have made great art. But Jack (to its credit, the film at least partially understands this) certainly hasn't. There are comic sequences that effectively offset Jack's heavy-handed musings, but they are too few and far between to save the film as a whole.
Some of what attempts to pass for comedy is purposefully cruel. Another one of Jack's victims is a young woman named Jacqueline (Riley Keough), who Jack calls "Simple" and verbally abuses. He toys with her for a while, outlining her breasts in pen and calling her dumb before she gets fed up and tries to leave. He traps her, admits to being the elusive serial killer from the papers, and — who would've guessed? — kills her by cutting off her breasts. (Later, when he tries to buy a gun, he uses one of her breasts as a wallet.) It's a provocative scene, but it's mostly a letdown. Keough, an increasingly acclaimed actress, gets little in the way of material and Dillon, doing what he can with a one-note role, simply repeats techniques from earlier chapters.
Women in The House that Jack Built are little more than toys for Jack to use to demonstrate his grand gestures, which is particularly disappointing considering the strong, nuanced performances von Trier has coaxed out of terrific actresses in the past. In this film, the only notable supporting character is Verge (Bruno Ganz), or Virgil (a name you might recognize from a The Divine Comedy, a clear influence), who talks and argues with Jack throughout the film but isn't seen until its last act. In the final scene, he leads Jack to Hell. It's visually marvelous, but in a sense it feels long overdue. It's almost a relief when, surrounded by the fiery pits, Jack falls. So too, it seems, has von Trier.