Ah, what is left to say about The House That Jack Built, the latest shocker from director Lars Von Trier which prompted “mass walkouts” at the Cannes Film Festival this year (https://variety.com/2018/film/news/l…es-1202810582/)?
If you are like me, you have seen the recent reviews and coverage of this film and, regardless of your thoughts of the director or the subject matter, had your curiosity piqued. So, when I discovered the film was showing near me, I took a chance and went to have a look for myself.
For my final review of the year, here are my thoughts on the film The House That Jack Built.
The film offers a promising premise:
Jack (most critics do agree Matt Dillon brilliantly captures this psychopath) has died and is being ferried to the underworld (on a literal river Styx) by Verge (Bruno Ganz).
While on their trip, Jack decides to recount, at random, five (5) incidents of his depravity in order to shock Verge, who claims that he has heard it all before.
The incidents are as such:
- The Woman on the Road – Uma Thurman plays a strange woman that Jack meets on the side of the road. Her car has broken down and she bullies Jack into helping her try to fix it and then, when he cannot, into giving her a ride to a mechanic. Though Jack is not necessarily planning to kill her, the opportunity presents itself and Jack cannot resist.
- What I thought was strange here was Uma Thurman’s portrayal of the Woman. She is very abrupt, crude and off-putting which is not how anyone (in her situation or in any situation) would act ever.
- As I thought more about this incident, however, I came to the conclusion that we are getting everything from Jack’s Point of View and so this may not really have been how the Woman really acted, just how Jack interpreted her actions/words.
- Verge even makes a comment about this and the typical serial-killer is unable to interact with normal people, which Jack doesn’t seem to have an answer for.
- The Woman in the House – This was perhaps my favorite incident. After Jack tricks his way into a home and murders a woman, his severe OCD and need to clean the crime scene prevents him from leaving the house with her body, even as the police close in on his location.
- This was a darkly funny moment, as Jack must continue to rush into the home and wipe down areas in the home that he fears he missed.
- Family Hunting Trip – This scene caused most walkouts at Cannes. A bit of a jarring time-jump here, but Jack has found himself a family, complete with a wife and two children.
- He takes them out to a shooting range and describes the precise methods that hunters use to track and kill their prey.
- Unfortunately for the wife and children, Jack is not planning on hunting deer and, instead, begins to hunt each of them in a brutally efficient way.
- The “Simple” Woman – Perhaps the most disturbing for me. After another time-jump, Jack has found himself a girlfriend who he claims to have “loved”. He is cruel to her and calls her “simple” because she cannot keep up with his philosophical musings (one wonders if this is Von Trier giving us, his audience, the middle finger)
- After Simple realizes that he is the serial-killer Mr. Sophistication, she screams for help… and no one, not her neighbors, not the police, not a living soul, comes to her rescue.
- This is a very nihilistic bit in which Jack expounds on the terrible realities of humanity and our selfishness as a species.
- Jack’s Masterpiece – In his walk-in freezer, Jack has managed to kidnap and chain up six living people that he plans to kill with one full-metal-jacket round that he is going to fire at them from short range.
- The problem here, and what leads to his ultimate downfall, is that the bullet that he was sold is not actually a full-metal-jacket round.
- OCD acting up again, Jack leaves his soon-to-be victims tied up and returns to the gun shop to get the right type of bullet.
- Once there, he discovers that the police are closing in and that he has been ratted out by the shifty gun shop owner.
- After killing an officer and stealing his vehicle, Jack rushes back to the freezer to finish his masterpiece with the police in hot pursuit.
- Epilogue – In our epilogue, Jack and Verge, having been traveling to the underworld this whole time, finally arrive at Jack’s final destination: hell. In an interesting moment, Jack sees a broken bridge, one that leads to a literal stairway to heaven.
Jack asks Verge if there is any way to get across the broken bridge and Verge tells him that he might try climbing across the rocky wall above them.
Verge warns that many souls have tried and none of them have made it, but Jack decides that he will try his luck and see if he cannot beat his fate and thus begins scaling the wall above an endless pit of fire.
I think my thoughts on this film can best be summed up in the way in which I described it right after I returned from my theater while chatting with our very own 3-Way and the Captain:
“Overall, The House That Jack Built was pretty pretentious, too-long (2 and a half hours), and very on-the-nose and I can’t really recommend it, but it had some really great moments and I found myself thinking on it long after the credits had rolled, so I think I really liked it.”
There are moments of brilliance in this film, like the Second Incident (Woman in the House) where Jack’s OCD keeps preventing him from leaving the scene of his crime without going back to clean, while the police sirens grow closer and closer, or the Third Incident (Family Hunting Trip) where Jack begins to hunt the wife and kids while explaining hunting methodology, which is intercut with stock footage of an actual deer hunt.
That said, the film drags towards the middle and feels bloated every time (of which there are several) that Jack and Verge stop the story/plot and debate the merits of art. This was unnecessary and, as Hank says, is insulting to your audience, as it came off like someone turning their nose up at you for daring to compliment their work.
The real issue here is that Mr. Von Trier feels the need to reiterate how intelligent he is and how “great” his works of art are (even using footage from his previous films when Jack talks about the great works of art in history). This begins to beg the question: who is Von Trier really trying to convince with this? Us (his audience) or himself?
For those of you worried about the gore factor, it is not for the faint of heart, but this film is also not the gore-fest, unwatchable film that some critics have claimed it to be – you can find much more disturbing content in any Saw film or even an episode of Hannibal.
Though I cannot say I necessarily enjoyed the film, it made me feel something (curiosity, tension, disgust, laughter) and think long after the credits had rolled. That may not be your definition of a great film, but as someone who loves and views lots and lots of movies, it stood out to me as something entirely unique.
Should you see it? That depends.
Do you have 2 ½ hours to spend on a contemplative journey to hell with a remorseless serial-killer? Do you even want to? Do you mind listening to two pretentious narrators debate the merits of art and genius in between scenes of bloody violence? Does the thought of witnessing on-screen violence towards women, children and animals make you queasy?
Mr. Von Trier wants to shock and, for some viewers, he succeeded. But what shocked me most about this film was the fact that it stuck with me and challenged me to think about some of the philosophical points it was making and to discuss and debate the ideas and themes with several people in my film circle.
Perhaps that was always the goal, or perhaps not. Perhaps Mr. Von Trier simply wanted people to gag as they witnessed the cruelty that he put on screen and to declare him sadistic and disturbed. If that was his goal, then he failed, in my opinion, as I saw something more to the madness than a superficial, cruel and forgettable slasher, as some have claimed.
Though it was not necessarily a pleasant journey that I took with Jack, I am glad that I visited his House, at least once, though I am not necessarily keen to go back anytime soon.