Lars von Trier shocks and provokes in bloody, violent, sadistic The House That Jack Built.
Judgement Daysby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
We all surely know by now that director Lars von Trier sets out to shock and provoke. In The House That Jack Built he returns to filmmaking after a break of several years to make us spend almost two and a half hours inside the tortured mind of a psychopathic serial killer. You’d expect it to be a gruelling experience, and it is. Of course, the nitty-gritty of each death is repellent and disgusting, and it’s meant to be. But somehow Jack’s lack of any human emotion seems to bleed over until we too are numb and, at times, incredibly almost bored by his meticulously detailed approach to murder – he has OCD, as we see in his obsessive cleaning up of blood.
Matt Dillon’s performance as Jack is suitably chilling as he presents his five highlights from his killing career in flashback. Jack has ambitions as an architect, and there is, in fact, a real house that he’s building. And in his many cunning guises, Jack couldn’t look less like a serial killer – hiding in plain sight.
The first victim we see is Uma Thurman, a lone, stranded female motorist who nags him into giving her a lift in his trademark red van to the nearest repair shop. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll have seen her making conversation, practically inciting Jack to kill her, even provocatively suggesting how he should conceal her body. She’s irritatingly manipulative but surely she didn’t deserve that jack (get it?) smashed in her face.
The other four killings (or ‘incidents’, as Von Trier describes them in the intertitles) that Jack reveals to us are varied in method, but all but one are women (they’re ‘more cooperative’), subjected to sadistic cruelty. Though there’s no explanatory back story, we also see Jack as a sociopathic child and as an adult in front of a mirror teaching himself to fake empathy to enable him to gain his victims’ trust.
And there’s his comment on the US’s penchant for massacres – in one ‘incident’, Jack shoots down a mother (Sofie Gråbøl) and her sons as calmly as if she were a doe and her kids that he was hunting – though his cruelty to them doesn’t end there. In the contempt he heaps on his victims, there are other, even more ingenious and callous humiliations and mutilations (Riley Keough).
Von Trier delights in having his characters saying the unspeakable and making us see the kind of images that we won’t forget – for instance, Jack’s gruesome first strangulation, before he perfected his technique. And the contents of Jack’s walk-in freezer – a tableau of a house of horrors built of bodies.
The ‘incidents’ are linked together by voiceover questions and answers between Jack and a man he calls Verge, who seems part interrogator, part psychiatrist. Jack justifies himself by comparing his serial killings to the kind of liberation found though art, architecture, music or viticulture and the dialectic continues throughout. The film seems partly Von Trier’s apologia for his own career and obsessions, as Jack’s philosophising is interspersed with clips from Von Trier’s own films and with archive footage – even, cheekily given the furore that banned him from Cannes, including Hitler and Buchenwald.
So the film is virtuoso filmmaking but also a litany of depravity and atrocities. It discusses many of the ideas that seem to torment Von Trier as a man and a filmmaker, so that you wonder where he could go next in his creative work. His identification of the soul and the body as personifying heaven and hell reaches an explanation in the final section, the Epilogue, where who ‘Verge’ is and his role in relation to Jack is revealed.
The House That Jack Built is shocking, horrible, and it’ll maybe make you regret seeing it, yet it is also frighteningly risk-taking filmmaking, worth seeing for its artistry and the idiosyncrasy of its viewpoint – and its revelation of the banality of evil.
The House That Jack Built premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and is released on 14 December 2018 in the UK and on VOD.