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Film Review – The House That Jack Built (2018)

The House That Jack Built

It seems that I am now MovieBabble’s go-to guy for correspondence on very controversial motion pictures. Films that disgusted and angered critics and audiences now seem to be my specialty. After the LSD-induced, neon-drenched nightmare that was ClimaxI was convinced that there would not be a more repulsive film to be released this year.

Then Lars von Trier came along and said “hold my beer”.

The following review will be spoiler free.

Synopsis

Directed By: Lars von Trier

Written By: Jenle Halland and Lars von Trier

Starring: Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Sofie Gråbøl, Riley Keough, Jeremy Davies and Ed Speelers

Pacific Northwest, 1970s. Jack (Dillon), a failed architect turned serial killer recounts five random “incidents” over a twelve-year period.

Background

The House That Jack Built was originally planned to be a television miniseries. This is evident in the film’s very episodic structure, told in five acts and an epilogue.

Though the film shares its title with a popular British nursery rhyme, The House That Jack Built is anything but wholesome and child-friendly. Much like Gasper Noé, Lars von Trier is a man who is practically synonymous with controversy.

The film marked von Trier’s return to the Cannes Film Festival, after his infamous Nazi comments at a press conference for Melancholia in 2011 got him banned.

His return to Cannes was met with a very wild and divisive reception. There were reportedly over a hundred walkouts from audience members at the Cannes screening, however the film received a six-minute, long-standing ovation. That is about as divisive as it gets.

Image via IFC Center

No Respect For The Audience

Lars von Trier has quite the reputation of being a little egotistic, which is not always a bad thing. It means that you have an abundance of self-confidence and a great sense of pride in what you are creating. Especially for von Trier, a man who has had a very publicized battle with depression, it’s reassuring to know that he has a very positive image of himself.

However, this film turns the narcissism all the way up to eleven. Any possibility for nuance, interpretation or any sort of deep examination of the themes and ideas presented in the film are immediately eliminated. Instead we get an incredibly obnoxious voiceover conversation between Jack and a mysterious man not so subtly named Verge (Ganz) that literally explains, in granular detail, the messages and themes the film is conveying.

The voiceover and the ridiculously heavy-handed repetition of visual metaphors was infuriating. Couple this with the blatant overemphasis on fairly basic themes, it gives off the implication that von Trier has zero respect for his audience. The film is constantly talking down to its audience as if we are morons.

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We understood the lamp post metaphor the first time, Lars. You didn’t need to show us another ten times.

Image via Thrillist Entertainment

Tries To Be Self-Aware, But Fails

It’s very clear that The House That Jack Built is a self-reflection of Lars von Trier as a filmmaker and an artist. Even though the comparisons between an artist and a serial killer are incredibly farfetched, von Trier’s approach is always unique and interesting.

Credit to LvT, a man known for brutally depressing arthouse films, for attempting to create a self-aware black comedy. The problem is, von Trier does not have a single shred of self-awareness in his bones. As a result, his attempt at self-aware storytelling only makes him look more narcissistic and pretentious.

Matt Dillon gives a truly haunting performance as this very methodical and calculated psychopath. However, as the film progresses, Jack becomes less of a character and more of an onscreen surrogate and mouthpiece for Lars von Trier to spew out pseudo-intellectual nonsense about how he is a misunderstood genius.

This is most evident in the absolute worse scene in the film where Jack and Verge are talking in voiceover after one of Jack’s horrific kills. They begin a conversation about how violence is portrayed in art and how it is often so misunderstood. Then the film literally cuts to clips of von Trier’s previous films while they converse about misunderstood art. I wanted to through my goddamn shoe through the screen.

There’s also has blatant ‘homages’ to Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues video that add absolutely nothing to the film. Plus, an overuse of David Bowie’s funk track Fame playing over scenes with very violent imagery in an attempt at quirky humor, which is annoying and takes you out of the film.

Image via The Wrap

The House That Jack Built is a Cruel, Nasty Film

You’d be a fool to think that a film like this would be a pleasant, fun night out at the movies, but The House That Jack Built is just so unnecessarily cruel. There are many long, bloated conversations about justifying artistic purpose in the relation to Jack’s gruesome kills, yet the violence in the film exists for no other reason other than exploitation and shock value.

So if you don’t want to see a horrific scene where Jack cuts off woman’s breasts and later fashions a wallet out of one of them, maybe steer clear from this film. If you do want to see that, perhaps you should see a therapist.

It’s supposedly a ‘self-aware dark comedy’, and admittedly, there are a few great moments of very dark, morbid humor. One scene involving taxidermy managed to be both utterly abhorrent and hilarious at the same time. However, the sincerity of von Trier’s persona makes it very difficult to determine what he is conveying through Jack: is he making fun of himself or is he expressing what he genuinely believes?

Image via IndieWire

Jack has two monologues that best encapsulates this confusion. The first is yet another conversation with Verge where Jack discusses how Hitler was a misunderstood artist and that the Holocaust was a misunderstood work of art. This is absolutely absurd, not to mention incredibly offensive too. Because of von Trier’s infamous Nazi comments and that Verge is played by Bruno Ganz, who famously played Hitler in the film Downfall, this feels more like von Trier taking a shot at himself, but was executed in a very tone-deaf and distasteful fashion.

The second example is a strange speech that Jack gives to one of his soon-to-be victims that sounds like it was ripped right out of a 4chan message board. He talks about how men are cursed to be born with guilt and that women are only ever the victims in quite a misogynistic tirade. One could view this as von Trier talking a stand against misogyny, but the female characters are so terribly written and are written to be so incredibly stupid for that to be the case.

Image via Deadline Hollywood

Final Thoughts

A few great moments of black comedy and Matt Dillon’s creepy performance aside, The House That Jack Built is self-indulgent, obnoxious trash to the nth degree. It is an utterly disgusting, repulsive and extremely pretentious film that is practically Lars von Trier stroking his own ego for 152 minutes.

The narration is terrible, the writing is downright cringeworthy in parts, the editing is dreadful and it is constantly talking down to its audience as if they are complete imbeciles.

If von Trier wanted to make another controversial film designed to disgust and shock audiences, then in that regard, The House That Jack Built is a success. Hopefully next time, he focuses on making a proper film and dials down the narcissism just a little bit.

Grade: D+

Image via The Playlist


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Sean Coates

Sean Coates is a Screen Production student at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia and is MovieBabble's unofficial and self-appointed Australian Correspondent. Sean is also the creator/host of Another Bloody Movie Podcast.

5 Responses

  1. Mark says:

    Agree wholeheartedly with the reviewer. This film ~barely~ managed to hold my attention to the end. This movie is like a ‘faces of death’ rehash with a ridiculous monologue and half an attempt at dialogue (in places). The amazing thing to me is that this film made it to production and any kind of market picked it up. I would totally pass on this one.

  2. I’m beyond thrilled for this flick. Sorry you didn’t dig.

  3. Patricia Henderson says:

    Oh dear Lord! I had never heard those press conference comments before. Wow.

    This film sounds unbearable. Thank you for the review.

  4. Nick Kush says:

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  5. I’ll be sure to give this one a miss, although I do appreciate how strongly worded the negative review is. It sounds as though “The House That Jack Built” deserves every invective you hurled at it!

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