Monday, December 17, 2018

Movie Review: The House That Jack Built

The House That Jack Built *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Lars von Trier.
Written by: Lars von Trier and Jenle Hallund.
Starring: Matt Dillon (Jack), Bruno Ganz (Verge), Uma Thurman (Lady 1), Siobhan Fallon Hogan (Lady 2), Sofie Gråbøl (Lady 3), Riley Keough (Simple), Jeremy Davies (Al), Ed Speleers (Ed - Police officer 2), David Bailie (S.P.), Cohen Day (George), Rocco Day (Grumpy), Robert G. Slade (Rob). 
It’s really saying something to note that in a year where we finally saw Orson Welles’ final vision in The Other Side of the Wind, a film where Welles undeniably is interrogating himself as a filmmaker, that Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built is the film most closely connected to its creators in its willingness to interrogate the man who made it. The film is two-and-a-half hours of Von Trier responding to his critic’s claims of his misanthropy and misogyny, basically by proving them right. He is deliberately trying to be provocative here – and your mileage will vary on how much of this you’re willing to sit through. The film is full of violence against women and children – all of it hard to watch – as well as long conversations comparing artists to murderers, some of which is insightful, and some of which sounds like an insufferable undergrad who goes on long rants in class as the rest of the class either rolls their eyes, or fall asleep. This isn’t a great film by Von Trier – a director who has undeniable made some great films – Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, Antichrist, Nymphomaniac, the first half of Melancholia – but it is something to behold. It is almost as if Von Trier is saying to his critics that while they may hate him, he hates himself even more. After all, by the end of the film, his surrogate is literally in hell.
That surrogate is Jack (Matt Dillon), a prolific serial killer, who is telling his story to Verge (Bruno Ganz – a faceless voice until the epilogue of the film) about five of his killings. He has so little regard for his victims that they are never given names – except for one, who he has dubbed Simple, because that is precisely how he sees her. So there is the first lady, played by Uma Thurman, who Jack picks up on the side of the road when she gets a flat tire, and her Jack breaks. He drives her to a repair shop, back to her car, and is driving her back again, when tired of her screeching into his ear, joking that he is a serial killer, and laughing about that because he’s obviously too weak to be that, he smashes the jack into her face. He kills another woman by strangling her in her room, he takes a woman and her two young sons on a hunting trip, and then uses them as the game. The most infamous sequence has to do with Simple, of course, a woman he was involved with romantically, before the extended torture sequence which involves him cutting off her breasts. It was at this point at Cannes that many who made it that far had had enough, and walked out. But Von Trier just keeps on going and going and going. We only see a few of Jack’s crimes – but we see the bodies of his victims, which he keeps stacked up in a walk in freezer – and will occasionally move them around, the photograph them in weird positions. Jack is a failed architect, and the title seems to be about the house he always wanted to build – that he planned for years – but the last act, he literally does build a house out of those bodies – and then walks through to hell.
What you make of the film is up to you. I cannot tell you to sit through the film and its violence because the payoff is something terribly profound, because to be frank, it isn’t. If you don’t want to put yourself through all of that vile violence, fair enough – it is hard to take. It’s also hard to take the endless conversations between Jack and Verge – which most often plays over images of historical atrocities – although in one telling sequence, it’s over clips of Von Trier’s other films. As with the violence, Von Trier repeats himself again and again in this dialogue, belaboring his point. You may disagree with his ideas about art, and the similarities between artists and murderers, but at least some of it is interesting to listen to. Much of it isn’t though.
In a way, simply by watching the film, you make Von Trier into the winner here. Much like Jack, as he details his thoughts to Verge, he isn’t actually trying to convince you of anything – he just doesn’t want to be ignored. This not really a film where Von Trier bandies about ideas as much as one where he talks to you directly, and you have to sit there and take it. And then take it some more.
And if all that sounds insufferable to you, then you shouldn’t see The House That Jack Built – although, you probably already know that since you’ve probably never much liked Von Trier – a completely valid stance, as he is at times too much to take. For me, as a fan of Von Trier, I found much of it fascinating and sad and infuriating and repulsive and vile. The filmmaking is at times among the best things Von Trier has ever put on screen – the epilogue in hell is visually stunning. I cannot tell you to watch The House That Jack Built – most audiences will either be repulsed or bored (or, more likely, both) by the film. And it certainly isn’t the film to watch if you’ve never seen a Von Trier film before. But if you’ve made it this far in the review, and you want to see it – then go ahead. It is everything that people who hated it said it was – it’s also everything that people who loved it said it was.

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