I believe I’m ready to cast Lars von Trier in the same dustbin I’ve consigned Terrence Malick and Michael Heneke. I think I’m done with him and his films. The man has obvious talent but is often his own worst enemy, given to self-destructive impulses and excessive cruelty meant to be daring and challenging but is mostly perfunctory. The House That Jack Built is distasteful by design but also heavy-handed, obvious, and vacuous to a fault.
Jack (Matt Dillon) narrates his life as an American serial killer in the 1970s and 80s. He’s traveling through the afterlife with the help of Verge (Bruno Ganz), a supernatural guide and easy listener. Jack divides his murderous exploits into a series of five key incidents: Lady 1 (Uma Thurman) being picked up looking for car help; Lady 2 (Siobhan Fallen Hogan) as a suspicious neighbor answering the door; Lady 3 (Sofie Grabol) as a mother with kids who is taken hunting and then literally hunted; Simple (Riley Keough), the one who tried to get away; and finally the last scenario where Jack tried to kill multiple men with a single “full metal jacket” bullet. Along the way, Jack talks about the frustrations of his boyhood and adulthood, living with OCD, and the implications of his life’s legacy.
It’s not that a serial killer film, whether it be a psychological examination or gnarly genre thrill ride, can be without artistic merit, but von Trier settles for empty provocations. He’s using the nature of the movie serial killer to essentially terrorize the audience and make them question what entertainment value they ever saw in these kinds of figures and stories, or von Trier’s films at that. I was expecting an unsettling experience given the nature of the subject and the reputation of the filmmaker, but what made the situation all the more oppressive and disquieting is how obvious and heavy-handed everything comes across. The central metaphor could not be any more transparent for any person familiar with von Trier’s back catalogue of punishing feature films. Jack views himself as an artist, specifically an architect, and his art is via terrorizing women for personal satisfaction. In case you needed it further spelled out, Jack is von Trier, a filmmaker who makes movie after movie featuring a central heroine being abused and exploited with no cosmic justice. A von Trier film experience is all about unchecked suffering and systemic abuse from the patriarchy. Sometimes this can be a condemnation that elicits strong emotional responses like a Dancer in the Dark, and other times it feels like von Trier wallowing in flip nihilism, like the conclusion of his two-part Nymphomaniac opus that undid the preceding four hours. Jack kills women for his art; von Trier tortures women for his art. There you go. With that central metaphor established, you’d expect the movie to become an introspective and excoriating probe into von Trier as a notorious filmmaker who often shocks and appalls. Oh how wrong you would be. The House That Jack Built is the same stale slog only with a slight meta twist.
For no better example of how heavy-handed the movie is, simply observe its unnecessary framing device where Verge/Virgil is literally leading Jack in the dark toward the subterranean bowels of Hell and the two are digressing the long walk. My friend and filmmaker Jason Tostevin said he was watching The House That Jack Built with a “scrunched-up face” for its majority until the last thirty minutes when he accepted it as a morose comedy, and then it started playing better for him. That might just make sense, considering von Trier’s overwrought pitch-black sense of humor and overall belief that life is a joke. I did laugh out loud once Jack and Verge are floating in bubbles. It also provides some, not much, context to scenes like Thurman’s, where she keeps needling Jack about what a bad serial killer he would be based on his decisions. It’s almost like von Trier is trying to say that Jack took the psycho killer plunge because a bossy woman kept annoying him and pushed him into it. The early sequence of Jack stumbling into being invited into a woman’s home has a clumsiness that almost invites a degree of wicked comedy, especially after Jack tries to treat the woman who seems incapable of dying. There’s also the absurd conclusion of the “house” Jack actually finally constructs. However, even as a supposed “comedy,” The House That Jack Built is an obnoxious experience that will make you feel worse by the end of its painfully lugubrious 150-minutes.
There was one kernel of an idea that could have worked, the nature of a serial killer with OCD. Those competing impulses would provide a level of new interest. During the second incident, Jack is compelled to go back to the crime scene again and again, risking being caught by a pesky neighbor or police officer, but he can’t help it. He’s obsessed that he didn’t check every last square inch and there’s an unseen blood droplet that will doom him. The concept isn’t new as Ray Bradbury had a short story “The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl” about a killer obsessed with eradicating every trace of his fingerprints. It puts the killer in a position of vulnerability that makes every killing more fraught. It’s almost like von Trier can suspect his audience enjoying this aspect of his story and so he must snuff it out. For whatever reason, Jack says he eventually just stopped caring. He just got over his crippling OCD tendencies through the power of criminal apathy. Jack is never in any danger of being caught because, and even Verge interjects on this, the people of this world are preposterously stupid. Nobody believes Jack is a potential murderer, and so this level of ignorance (and white male privilege) enables him to kill with impunity. By removing the possibility of any external threat, Jack becomes that much more boring. The only possible points of interest now become his disturbing murder tableaus. An extended sequence with Keough (Logan Lucky) made me feel queasy, especially when her character’s breasts end up getting severed and slapped onto an ignorant officer’s windshield. That moment felt like von Trier rubbing it in that a good-looking white man can get away with anything.
Even with its five-incident structure, plus celestial-spanning epilogue, the movie is all over the place. von Trier never met a Wikipedia article he didn’t like and want to awkwardly shoehorn into a longer narrative. Get ready for more seemingly unrelated academic asides meant to come across as philosophical pontification on the nature of art, evil, culpability, and whatever else sounded smart at the time. Jack compares his murder sprees to… medieval architecture. He then digresses about pianist Glen Gould, dessert wines and their decomposition process, the screaming WWII German airplane the Stuka, the theory of Ruin Value, the balance of light and shadow from two streetlamps, and you bet there are concentration camp anecdotes. At one point Jack and Verge are debating how one can best enjoy art and von Trier uses clips from his own movies as examples of “challenging art” in case you wondered whether or not he was going to be too hard on himself and his past. These quizzical asides often feel tacked on like academic footnotes, yet the film is stuffed full of them. It lurches from incident to incident and footnote to footnote, mostly because Jack is a rather boring lead character with a boring worldview and past. Then there’s the final epilogue that literally takes place in Hell. If you can make it past that, dear reader, you’ll be treated to a smash cut to the end credits set to, I kid you not, “Hit the Road Jack.” It’s a baffling, tonally discordant decision that only furthers the theory of Jack as a comedy.
I feel like I’ve endured enough von Trier films in my life at this point that I can walk away, content with the decision. It’s getting harder and harder for von Trier to tell a new story and his old tricks have grown tired, placing him into unintentional (or intentional?) self-parody. There isn’t enough introspection or insight or narrative complexities to justify this bloated and bedeviled look at one man’s many misdeeds. The characterization is slack and there are no significant supporting figures, only victims and stooges, and sometimes both at once in von Trier’s mocking reflection of our universe. I felt varying degrees of sympathy for every actor in this movie. They deserve better. Matt Dillon can play to the dark side well but he deserves more than to be a smiling cardboard cutout. Uma Thurman was one of the best actors in Nymphomaniac Part One. Doesn’t she deserve better than to get repeatedly smacked in the face with a broken car jack (get it, a “broken jack,” because the main guy’s name is… oh, you do get it?)? Riley Keough definitely deserves better than to have her breasts fondled for a solid minute onscreen and then used as a coin purse later. And the audience likewise deserves better than to spend 150 minutes watching misguided torment and misogyny disguised as introspection and social commentary. The House That Jack Built is rotten to its very foundations and another excuse in cheap sadism for the cheap seats.
Nate’s Grade: C-