UK Release Date: 14th December 2018
Runtime: 153 minutes
Director: Lars von Trier
Writer: Lars von Trier
Starring: Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman, Riley Keough, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Sofie Gråbøl, Jeremy Davies, David Bailie
Synopsis: A serial killer tells the story of his life to an unseen mentor figure as he travels on a journey of personal reflection.
“You might as well be a serial killer,” says Uma Thurman‘s soon-to-be victim at the beginning of The House That Jack Built, adding “sorry, but you do kinda look like one.” Moments later, Matt Dillon‘s titular madman bludgeons her to death with a car jack in the passenger seat of his red murder van. He’s called Jack, and he kills her with a jack. Get it?! This is more or less the tone of Lars von Trier‘s latest, which is a pretentious and dramatically inert tale that wakes you up periodically with a mind-blowingly offensive slice of ultra-violence before rambling off on another pseudo-intellectual tirade about art, architecture or engineering. It’s like a TED Talk delivered by a psychopathic Geography teacher.
The plot is structured around “five randomly chosen incidents”, recounted by Jack to the unseen voice of Verge (Bruno Ganz), with whom Jack is embarking upon some sort of journey. It doesn’t take a genius of film criticism to realise that Jack is a surrogate for Von Trier himself, which positions the film as an examination of von Trier’s assaultive storytelling style. The result, though, is a navel-gazing trudge through the worldview of someone who’s asking for forgiveness without offering an apology. I believe we call that “doing a Kevin Hart” these days.
Even the most sympathetic viewer would conceded that it’s not possible to enjoy The House That Jack Built, which takes great pleasure in inflicting the worst of humanity on the audience. Want to see a woman referred to as ‘Simple’ have her breasts cut off in a horribly drawn-out torture scene? Check. Want to listen to a woman’s gurgles as she tries desperately to draw breath through her crushed windpipe? Check. Want to see the aforementioned jack attack on a woman repeated at least three times? Check again. The common denominator in all of this horror is that it’s women who are the victims. With that said, though, there are exceptions when von Trier takes a break from torturing women in order so Jack can shoot down a couple of children, and dismember a duckling. That’s diversity in action.
But it’s perhaps overly dismissive to discuss this film in such basic terms. It’s obviously not trying to be enjoyable. This is an art film, right? Certainly, von Trier is trying to make a point. Unfortunately, it’s never quite clear what that point actually is. Often, the structure seems to simply be a vessel for von Trier to ramble on about tigers killing lambs, decaying grapes and the nature of architecture, in ways that honestly couldn’t be more tedious. It’s essentially a cycle of storytelling, where von Trier delivers a boring bit, followed by a horrible bit and then a pretentious conclusion, before the whole viciously terrible circle begins again. Given the shock value of The House That Jack Built at its most button-pushing, it’s stunning how soporific many of its more languid segments are.
If we accept that von Trier intends something more than just impish malevolence here, we should probably do what he says and “don’t look at the acts, look at the words”. The problem is that the words are so excessive, delivered in enormous dumps of incoherent babble, with Dillon’s infuriatingly smug protagonist – only von Trier could create a character that doubles for him and get away with the nickname ‘Mr Sophistication’ – only rivalled for annoyance value by Bruno Ganz’s super-smug tour guide. Ganz, of course, is best known for playing Adolf Hitler and, given von Trier’s now infamous Cannes comments about the dictator, we can assume it’s another chuckle of a reference from one of cinema’s masters of onanistic filmmaking.
And chuckle, Lars does. The House That Jack Built flirts with black comedy and, in isolation, some of its segments could pass as wryly funny. However, the audience is never more than a few minutes away from another explosion of violence or a snoozy monologue about something or other. It’s almost a shame that this film is so thematically and morally bankrupt, though, because it has moments of real invention. The climactic scenes are visually arresting and designed with a handsome directorial flair. The problem, as with the rest of the movie, is that the messaging is vile.
Pop or Poop?
There’s probably an audience for The House That Jack Built, but I can’t see who that audience could be. Nonetheless, critics will chuckle wryly at von Trier being his provocative self, rather than dissecting the fact the film illustrates the worst elements of humanity while also serving as an exercise in self-congratulation. What he has created is a horrible wallow in self-generated filth. I have no desire to hop into that mud bath ever again.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.