FILM REVIEW: THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT
Last week I was treated to the one-night-only director’s cut screening of Lars von Trier’s newest film THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT (THTJB).It was a challenging film on many levels, and even as I sit here writing this, I know that this review alone may rub people the wrong way. Lars von Trier tends to be one of the more polarizing characters in the world of modern art cinema, and someone whose films you either love or hate. Take the man himself out of the equation, and his films still tend to spark some serious debate. So, read on at your own risk. I know that this review may even be unpopular within our film family here at FEAR FOREVER (you know who you are…wink wink).
Please allow me to set the stage prior to the film. My friend and I arrived at the Sie FilmCentre about a half hour prior to show time to secure decent seats. To our relief, the theater was only about half full, which is pretty good considering that this film is a little on the obscure side. There was a definite energy buzzing in the lobby as well as in the auditorium. We all knew that we were in for something offensive, which is more or less synonymous with von Trier at this point. That being said, we didn’t know exactly how offensive it would be. It felt almost like going to a concert with the patrons getting beers or smoking that last cigarette before settling in for the nearly 3-hour film. As 7:00 pm approached, there was hardly an empty seat in the house.
Enter chief programmer Keith Garcia to give us a brief rundown of the film we were about to watch. I know Keith personally, and his word is as good as gold. He has very seldom steered me wrong, and he very much knows his shit. He told us about the controversy surrounding this film, and even about the reported 100+ walkouts when the film debuted earlier this year at Cannes Film Festival. He then asked “how many of you are here because you LOVE Lars von Trier?” followed up with “ and how many of you are here because you HATE Lars von Trier?”. It was about a 60/40 split, and his comments did make us laugh. He concluded his intro by saying “I feel that Lars watched HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER and said…I can do better”. We were then left in the dark to interpret what that might mean.
After this, there was not one, but two video introductions. First, the star of the film (Matt Dillon) appeared, wearing a green sweater and trademark smirk to address the audience. He introduces himself and states that THTJB is a difficult film. He leaves us with the remarks “If you feel like screaming, I think that you should. If you feel like laughing, I think that you should…But whatever you do, please stay until the end.” Next up is the man himself, Lars von Trier. He starts with a boisterous “Hello, America!”. Sitting in what appears to be his living room, Lars looks so harmless, like a distant Danish uncle you once knew. He tells us that “this film is meant to be digested over several days”. He concludes his intro with “Never Trump, Never again”, a very pointed message to American audiences. I wasn’t sure how this political message would play into the film, but more on that later. His final message resonated with the predominately liberal crowd, but nonetheless the message was met with collective applause/groans.
Now to discuss the film itself…This is a difficult film for a multitude of reasons. Not only because of Lars’ art house sensibilities, but for the onscreen acts of violence and cruelty towards it’s characters. This movie challenged me…DEEPLY. I don’t recall being this fiercely challenged by a film since A SERBIAN FILM. I still hold A SERBIAN FILM as the current high water mark of extreme cinema, but rest assured THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT is almost as punishing. I consider myself a connoisseur of extreme cinema, and this one will easily go down in the top 5-10 most extreme I’ve ever seen. To put it in skiing terms, these films are double black diamonds, and all novice skiers risk serious injury by even attempting them. However, it isn’t punishment just for punishments sake. Both films want to abuse the viewer. Just like when a disappointed parent asks the question “So, do you understand why you’re being punished?” I feel that I did understand why, and it’s for these reasons that some folks might be upset.
The film is about an engineer named Jack (expertly played by Matt Dillon) who has a penchant for murdering people, particularly women. He narrates the film himself, and breaks the movie down into the five most influential “incidents” of his “career”. This in no way means that we only see five murders, just that it’s broken down by incident to indicate passages of time. It also allows the viewer to really follow his growth and progression as a killer. When hes not working or killing, Jack is busy building his dream home on an isolated plot of land. This project is ever evolving, but still ranks as an afterthought to murder, his real passion project.
Matt Dillon has played some world-class sleazeballs in his acting career, but Jack is thoroughly reprehensible on nearly every level. I really don’t want to explain too much about the incidents, as the shock value and impact will be lessened by any descriptions I could provide. I will say this…it’s cruel, and some of the most realistic onscreen violence I’ve ever seen. NO DETAIL IS SPARED! The accompanying silence that scores the brutality is deafening and undeniably effective. The lack of music during his crimes only heightens the realism, and almost pulls the air out from the room you’re in. For those of you thinking that the imagination is worse than anything you could see, trust me, you don’t want to walk around in the imagination of Lars von Trier. Let me just say that incident three is one of the most vicious pieces of cinema ever filmed, and I let out at least three DEEP breaths as the scene was unfolding. There are some things that can never be unseen, and this is something I will truly never forget…ever. There were at least 3-4 walkouts as this scene was revealing itself to the crowd. I don’t squirm often, and this made me very, very uncomfortable.
As cruel and angry as this film is, it’s not without a sharp wit and sense of humor that has also become a trademark of von Trier films. Whether it’s the blasting of David Bowie’s Fame while crimes are being committed, to Jacks crippling OCD that makes cleaning a crime scene nearly impossible, yet hysterical in his efforts. When the film wasn’t overwhelming you with violence and misogyny, it was going hard for laughs, strange as that may seem. It’s brilliant in its ability to maintain this balance, which is emblematic of a master craftsman. I was impressed how he could seemingly take you from feeling gut-punched one second, to having a genuine laugh the next.
Now for the trademark Lars von Trier “pretentiousness” we all know so well. Ultimately, I interpreted this film as Lars reacting to the current state of world affairs, particularly with America. I felt that there was a strong anti-American sentiment in the film, portrayed in the stupidity of many of the characters, as well as the indifference to the prevalent violence that requires more effort to ignore above all. More specifically, there was a strong anti-Trump sentiment as evidenced by the character of Jack, and the privilege and entitlement of white men in the United States. This can be seen in the choices Jack makes, and some of the beliefs he holds true. I felt this might’ve been the strongest takeaway from the film, as Matt Dillon is a reflection of the angry white men who have become so much more visible under the current administration. Frankly, I don’t know that we would’ve gotten this film without Trump in the White House, and since Lars mentioned him by name in the intro, it seems fitting to mention it here. Jack even dubs himself Mr. Sophistication as his crimes become more lewd, repugnant, and difficult to stomach. Piggybacking off the anti-Trump thing was also a strong reaction from Jack to the ideals of the #MeToo movement as evidenced by Jack’s treatment of women, and VERY specifically during a monologue during incident 4. He basically posits that it’s a tough time for biologically born men, as being born male makes you inherently evil. Again, these are not MY beliefs, but rather what Lars is attempting to beat into his viewers. These themes are divisive, hot button issues that Lars has decided to run at full steam ahead. He wants to provoke you, shock you, and possibly anger you. At times its hard to decipher whether he is addressing this narrative through genuine expression or when/if he’s saying these things sarcastically and taking the piss.
Lastly, Lars has always had a strange soft spot for Nazism, and this film brings it to light more than ever. When he isn’t intersplicing HIS OWN FILMS (literally) into THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT as examples of “high art”, he’s admiring some of the greatest art & architecture that the Third Reich had to offer. I won’t say that he’s sympathizing with Nazism, but maybe juxtaposing the atrocities they’ve committed with the ones Jack commits, all while comparing them to great art when executed correctly. There are many references to murder as art, even going so far as having an animated sequence explaining what the need to kill feels like, and even showing dead bodies as building blocks (also literally) to achieving a greater art form. There were many things that I’m sure I didn’t absorb upon this initial viewing, running all the way from religion to art, to heaven and hell. There’s only so much you can absorb when so much is being thrown at you in such an aggressive manner.
I’m glad I took a few days to digest the film, as recommended by Lars himself. I found it very difficult and challenging, but also strangely cathartic. I can’t explain it, but it’s been years since a film has challenged me and asked so much of my critical thinking. Frankly for me, a film like this is why we do what we do. It’s an artistic film with a point that punishes you, but wants you to intrinsically ask yourself why you’re being punished. Maybe we deserve it? THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT is also a difficult film to classify. Horror seems to have become a catch-all for extreme films that are hard to put neatly into a box or category. While what we are seeing is indeed horrific, I would put some of these films into the more dramatic/art-house category. I understand why it’s classified as a horror film, but I think it’s a little misleading, and will ultimately prevent something like this from getting the critical and academic accolades it may (or may not) deserve. It’s a mean-spirited, and very angry film, but one with a message that I felt we can learn from.
KNOW WHAT YOU ARE GETTING INTO!!! This film is not for the faint of heart, or novice viewers. If you hate Lars, you will still hate Lars, maybe even more. This is a film that can and will hurt you if you allow it into to your psyche, or if you’re unprepared for the visuals that lie within. But, shouldn’t all great art be a little dangerous? I like my pretentious art films with a side of danger, and this one delivers in spades!!
“I don’t recall being this fiercely challenged by a film since A SERBIAN FILM.”
5 Tombstones out of 5…My first perfect score!