House That Jack Built, The (2018)Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 01/11/19 10:50:58
With a collection of elements that includes Matt Dillon, creepy vans, homages to the JFK assassination, Elvis Presley’s granddaughter, walk-in freezers, the kind of pseudo-philosophical discussions rarely heard outside of dorm rooms at colleges whose accreditation is currently under review, the guy from that old commercial insisting that there was a direct line between listening to punk rock and owing a Subaru, mangled baby ducks, side trips into the depths of Hell, David Bowie songs, wallets made of extremely dubiously sourced leather and the apparent ability to fold time—how else to explain a running time that clocks in at 2 1/2 hours but feels at least six times longer?—there are times when one has to wonder whether “The House That Jack Built” is trying to be a movie or New York’s hottest club. Actually, the latest stab (among other methods of execution) at cinematic provocation by aging bad boy auteur Lars Von Trier is more like a once-edgy club that is long past its prime and reduced to increasingly desperate measures to call attention to itself by any means necessary. Old-timers who were around back when the Von Trier name meant something may find a couple of aspects to be of moderate interest while despairing of how far things have fallen since the good old days while newcomers to the fold will more likely come away bored and annoyed and wondering what all the fuss could have possibly been about in the first place. Either way, the end result is a work that even fans of the “Human Centipede” franchise might dismiss as being too coarse and obvious for their rarefied tastes.Considering how polarizing von Trier has been as a filmmaker over the years, I suppose that it is only fair to preface my thoughts on his latest work with a general sense of what I have thought of him in the past. In general, while the idea of von Trier—a filmmaker who tries to provoke and outrage audiences with each one of his deeply personal and occasionally deeply insane works—is undeniably appealing in theory (here is one director whose name will never be tossed into the mix for the next Marvel gig), his actual output has not always lived up to that perverse potential. The guy has created one undeniable masterpiece in his electrifying end-of-the-world drama “Melancholia” (2011) and I found a lot to admire in his sexually explicit two-part epic “Nymphomaniac” (2014), a work that veered between the lunatic to the sublime so often that the line between the two was eventually obliterated. At the same time, I was much less enamored of such films as “Breaking the Waves” (1996) and “Dancer in the Dark” (2000) as some of my colleagues and flat-out detested the likes of such grotesqueries as “Dogville” (2003), “Manderlay” (2005) and “Antichrist” (2009). And yet, even with the films that I disliked, they all contained elements worth watching—especially the performances from a collection of lead actresses ranging from Nicole Kidman to Bjork—and even at their most unwatchable (and his films have contained some of the most appealing imagery ever put in front of a camera), they have only rarely been boring. Grotesque, repellent and leaving one in need of several full-strength “Silkwood”-style showers, to be sure, but never boring. By comparison, On the surface, “The House That Jack Built” is just as off-putting as its predecessors but what is the only legitimately shocking thing about it is how painfully and inexcusably tedious the whole damn thing is. This may have started out as an examination of what Hannah Arendt referred to as “the banality of evil” but let me just say that in this particular case, the order of billing is absolutely correct.
The film stars Matt Dillon as Jack, a serial killer who claims to have killed an enormous amount of people in and around the Pacific Northwest over a 12 year period spanning the Seventies and Eighties—although I don’t recall a precise final body count being given, he does at one point claim to have murdered 60 people and he is not quite through at that particular moment. As the film opens, he appears to be at the end of his particular career and is being led on a journey by a guide of sorts known as Verge (Bruno Ganz). As the two make their way to their unspoken destination (for most of this journey, we only hear their voices superimposed against a black screen), Jack elects to pass the time by relating the particulars of five randomly chosen “incidents” from his homicidal acts over the years. The first commemorates his first murder and shows him picking up a woman (Uma Thurman) on the side of a desolate road with a flat tire and a broken jack. She insists on him driving her into town and back to get the jack fixed and spends the entire time needling him for no apparent reason about how he looks and acts like a serial killer until he finally cracks her skull with the jack and hides her body in a giant walk-in freezer that he owns that contains a multitude of crappy frozen pizzas and a highly symbolic door that he cannot seem to open. In the second incident, he bluffs his way into the house of a not-particularly-bright woman (Siobhan Fallon Hogan)—she doesn’t buy his dubious claims of being a cop but does believe his equally dubious claims of being an insurance agent—eventually kills her after a number of false starts and brings her body back to the freezer by dragging it along the road behind his van. For the third, he takes a woman (Sofie Grabol) and her two young children out for a combination picnic/hunting lesson that quickly turns ghastly. In the fourth and grisliest of the incidents, he visits a woman he has been dating (Riley Keough)—whom he derisively refers to only as “Simple”—and confesses his crimes to her. She leaves and finds a cop who dismisses her as a drunk and she returns to Jack, who cuts off her breasts with a knife—don’t even ask what he does with them. In the last incident of his career, Jack’s attempt to kill six people at once by shooting them in the head with a single bullet hits a snag when he is sold the wrong ammo, leading to a comedy of errors that includes a number of unexpected killings and the law finally closing in on him before he finally meets up with Verge and they begin their journey.
The carnage that Jack inflicts in just these incidents would easily peg him as a monster of the highest order but as the film progresses, things somehow manage to get worse. You see, Jack also fancies himself to be an artistic sort who has channeled his dreams of being an architect into a different type of creative passion. While he is at first simply content to drag his victims into his freezer and leave them their, he later becomes inspired to pose them for photographs and eventually uses various taxidermy tricks to create elaborate positionings, at one point even manipulating the face of one of the dead kids into a Joker-like grin. On his journey with Verge, he goes on and on with discussions about subjects ranging from art, philosophy and architecture to the music of Glenn Gould, the poetry of William Blake and the unique fermentation process—the “noble rot”—that leads to the sweetest of wines. By being able to spout out such surface details in a practiced manner, Jack clearly sees himself as a cultured and erudite type whose crimes are far more elevated than those of your run-of-the-mill murderer—he even gives himself the nom-de-slaughter “Mr Sophistication”—but he is really a bore whose insights into art or the human condition never rise beyond the glib. Verge, for example, is having none of it. At the outset of their trip, he insists that there is nothing that Jack will reveal that he has not already heard before and he counters ever one of his shallow insights and pokes holes in all of his tortured reasonings—questioning why, for example, he only recounts crimes in which the victims were not only women but, at least in his retelling, exceptionally stupid ones to boot.
For those who have never seen a Lars von Trier film before (and this is not the place to break that streak), “The House That Jack Built” may seem like little more than a haphazard collection of grisly violence and equally painful philosophizing with precious little point to be had when all is said and done. For the rest, it becomes pretty evident that the entire film is an overtly self-reflexive work in which von Trier, whose own artistic output has long been accused of being essentially misogynistic in nature, grappling with his legacy and what he was trying to say with it all as his output increasingly depended on the cruel treatment of his characters (mostly female) and inspired equal amounts of acclaim and scorn. This sounds interesting enough in theory, I suppose. Although I, as previously stated, have not always been a fan of his work, his talent as a filmmaker cannot be denied and the notion of putting himself through the proverbial wringer with the same kind of exacting rigor that he has put his past characters could have led to something truly fascinating—a one-of-a-kind cinematic memoir that might even inspire one to revisit and reconsider his oeuvre as a whole. (Lest anyone overlook the fact that the film is a metaphorical autobiography, consider that when we are shown a montage of the miseries of the world late in the game, it is comprised entirely of clips from his previous films.) Unfortunately, the complex blend of sadism and humanity that von Trier has visited upon his characters over the years is largely missing here as, presumably out some outsized sense of self-loathing, he heavily stresses the former while casting the latter to the sidelines completely. That may be how he sees himself but painting Jack entirely as a sociopathic blowhard and his victims as shrill moronic harpies who are all but begging to be murdered, he ends up telling a story that is completely devoid of any justification for its existence other than to appall people with its tiresome shock effects.
Perhaps realizing early on just how hollow his central story was, von Trier throws in any number of gimmicks and allegedly controversial elements in an effort to goose audiences into feeling something, even if it is only outrage. When Uma Thurman’s character gets clocked in the head with the jack, it is an image that von Trier returns to so many times throughout the film that the flashbacks seem to make up roughly half of the screen time. We are treated to a montage of Nazi atrocities to help illustrate the everyday evil found in the world today. There are even moments when von Trier goes out of his way to insert contemporary references into what is technically a period drama—before one killing, Jack dons a red baseball cap that bears an unmistakable resemblance to a MAGA hat and before carving up Simple, he goes off on a long anti-woman rant that sounds as if it were lifted word-for-word from a particularly loathsome website catering to incels. The problem isn’t so much that von Trier has included these seemingly dubious elements as much as it is that he doesn’t do anything of value or interest with them. I am not inherently revulsed by any of the content on display (with the obvious exception of the Holocaust footage) but I am annoyed by the fact that none of them are put to good or interesting use in the ways that von Trier has dealt with such questionable material in the past.
And yet, what makes “The House That Jack Built” even more frustrating is that, amidst all the empty sadism and emptier pretension, there are a couple of points of genuine inspiration that cannot be denied. The performance by the perpetually underrated Matt Dillon, a fine actor who has not always gotten his due despite a number of genuinely great turns over the years, finds the actor taking on one of the least audience-friendly characters in recent memory and commits to it with a fierce determination that is all the more laudable considering the increasingly flailing tone of the film surrounding it. While all of the killings that we see are as ugly and graceless as can be—presumably to illustrate how even a literal hack can avoid detection from those in positions of power who consistently fail to grasp the obvious—the second one that the film depicts leads to an inspired sequence when it turns out that Jack is suffering from OCD and is continually compelled to return to the scene of the crime to scrub up splotches of blood that he is sure that he missed during his previous cleanups. This is an amusing idea that is executed in such an ingenious manner that you almost wish that it could somehow be surgically transplanted from this film into one more deserving of it. Best of all, after more than two hours of blood-streaked tedium, the film finally reaches its epilogue in which we finally get to discover who Verge really is and see the specifics of the journey that he and Jack have been undertaking leading up to the final destination. This sequence is von Trier at his best—funny, audacious, philosophical, visually inventive and dramatically compelling—and while it doesn’t come close to justifying any of what has come before it, it will at least reassure some viewers that he has not completely taken leave of his faculties, at least from a cinematic perspective.Truth be told, “The House That Jack Built” is not the worst Lars von Trier film that I have ever seen—“Dogville” and “Manderlay” are about as bad as it is and “Antichrist” is infinitely more appalling—but in a weird way, that almost makes things worse. At least with those films, the hatred that I continue to feel towards them suggests that they at least had the power to make me feel some kind of undeniable emotional reaction, even it was to storm the projection booth and burn the prints to ashes. The only sensation that I could detect while watching this, on the other hand, was that of utter boredom—even on a purely intellectual level, I was left completely cold by his work here. It is a non-starter from a dramatic standpoint, its psychological insights are trite at best (the grand idea here seems to be how killers and artists share the same kind of mindset, an idea that Roger Corman worked through far more skillfully in his B-movie classic “A Bucket of Blood” (1959) and he did it in a fraction of the time and included Dick Miller and Bert Convy into the mix as well) and his jokes stink. (As this film proves, there are few things in art more dire than a self-parody coming from someone with no evident sense of humor about themselves.) For all of its evident aspirations, “The House That Jack Built” is little more than an exercise in intellectual exploitation and is about as profound and philosophical as a grad student showing you their chewed-up food for 2 1/2 hours.
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