2018 | rated R | starring Matt Dillon, Uma Thurman, Slobhan Fallon Hogan, Riley Keough| directed by Lars von Trier | 2 hrs 32 mins |
While Lars Von Trier got his reputation in the 90s and early 00s as European cinema’s favorite misogynistic, anti-American, nihilist it would be in the last 10 years when he really started refining his cinematic craft. With Anticrist and Melancholia he showed a visual flair, staging his films like paintings and with Nymphomaniac Vol 1 (which hit my Top 10 list in 2013) he revealed his most shocking side yet – Lars von Trier has a sense of humor. Albeit, the world’s darkest sense of humor but out of the straight-faced brutality are some laugh-out-loud moments. The House that Jack Built might be Von Trier’s most accessible work. It’s a combines all of these filmmaking inclinations as well as plays like a greatest hits of the subjects Von Trier has been mulling over for 30 years on film – murder, women, art, God and evil.
The Jack of The House that Jack Built is a serial killer (Matt Dillon in full psychopath mode). Von Trier tells his life story over the course of a mammoth, ballooned-up two and a half hours in what feels like an anthology of short stories of each murder that involves him either turning his murders into art, physics experiments or simply being provoked by women for being dumb, questioning his manhood or simply existing. The entire film is linked together with an American Psycho vibe – Jack is able to get away with whatever he wants because society is such a careless, terrible, self-serving place that nobody is going to stop him. In another serial killer movie when the villains gun jams or he is confronted by a cop, it’s the break our victims need to get away, in Jack it’s just Von Trier turning the screws, dragging out the sense of hopeless inevitability.
The only thing that’s going to stop Jack is himself, which leads to him throwing a blanket on his victims to run out for just the right kind of bullets or staying in the home of his victim for hours obsessively rubbing the blood out of the wood floor because his OCD makes him. In Nymphomaniac Von Trier mocked the inclination of the sophisticates to find deep hidden meanings in art. In Jack he seems to be mocking people finding deep meanings in life itself. Art it seems is the only reality and even that is maliable. Von Trier leans into the absurdity of this without a wink, such as the way a hitchhiker Jack picks up (Uma Thurman) won’t stop going on about what he would do if he was a serial killer. This movie telegraphs everything it’s doing far in advance, dares you and then does exactly what it said it would. We’ve got mutilated women, child murder and dead bodies constructed into tableaus worthy of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal series. A strong stomach is required. So when the movie isn’t appalling, its hilarious.
The movie is long, but it never feels winded. I was constantly intrigued by each new chapter and reset. Von Trier also keeps breaking form and inserts archival footage as Jack, our narrator, explains the world to us. I love that stuff. Ultimately Von Trier can’t help himself but make the subtext of Jack building a body of work out of his murders into text. It’s silly and the movie could have done without it, but in the final section of the film Von Trier strikes a perfectly odd note of making the fantastical tangible. The entire film is dry and procedural and it’s entrance into full-on fantasy is perfectly the same. Von Trier turns the movie into a gothic painting with some of his most striking imagery to date, and it makes for a satisfying conclusion.
Most people will hate this movie. It’s occupies the tiniest niche in filmmaking for those that want to be challenged but don’t mind the challenge to not take itself that seriously. A 2 1/2 hour movie starring a reprehensible serial killer slowly and brutally murders women and drains the hope out of life in the process is, admittedly, a tough sell as a comedy. It’s fun to turn over the ideas that the self-professed Nazi brings up, even if a lot of them are ponderous pseudo-intellectualism. I’m always amazed at the talented group of women that line up to play Von Trier’s imperiled damsels and Jack is no exception, he gets great work out of Uma Thurman, Slobhan Fallon Hogan, and particularly Riley Keough.
The House that Jack Built is a towering work of nihilism by Von Trier, instead this time he seems less like an angry artist spitting-mad at the world and more of a outsider, observing the horrors around him with an icy detachment and a satirical smirk. That deliberate execution, that matter-of-factness, the very thing that will send many people into fits of boredom, is what makes Von Trier’s take on the serial killer film so unique and such a solid work to wrestle with.