THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT (Dir. by Lars von Trier, 152 min., USA, 2018)
BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC Lars von Trier is no stranger to controversy and his latest effort, and The House that Jack Built, may be his most controversial film to date. The film that prompted about 100 walkouts in Cannes has the Danish filmmaker tackling the horror genre in his most audacious film to date. When it comes to auteurs no one personifies this term more than the eccentric von Trier, who while sometimes problematic, is still responsible for some the best cinema of last two decades. This review is of the recent Director’s Cut screening of The House that Jack Built, which got IFC (The Film’s US distributor) in hot water. This is thanks to IFC not securing the appropriate waiver before screening the unrated director’s cut of the film so close to the R-Rated theatrical edition December 14th release.
The on the nose meta exercise follows Jack (Matt Dillion) aka “Mr. Sophistication” a serial killer operating in the pacific Northwest in the 1970s. Jack’s MO here is after a killing, he typically will stage photos of the bodies and these photos are part of the art he believes his killings represent. This is the film’s meta connection as it spends a hefty chunk of its running time discussing art theory and the creative process, in a thinly veiled parallel to the eccentric filmmaker. Lars von Trier may not be a serial killer, but how Jack discusses his painful relationship with creating art and making a new “masterpiece” makes it easy to see what’s going on here. If you have trouble picking up on that subtext, actual clips from von Trier’s filmography are used as examples in Jack’s arguments. The film is a textbook example of gallows humor as Jack’s attempts to create his art often go horribly wrong and the ultimate brazenness of some of his later “works” to generate some notoriety.
The House that Jack Built is basically an inside joke for fans that share the director’s macabre sense of humor, that will just appear as a grisly exercise in tolerance to the casual film goer. Matt Dillon is tasked with what is probably one of the greatest challenges of his acting career as the titular Jack. An equal-opportunity killer — women, men, children and animals — Jack is an unlikable neurotic psychopath plagued by OCD, who suffers from the need to wax poetic at length about dessert wines and the difference between engineers and architects. The film’s structure, with each murder a separate vignette, feels like the director recounting his films one by one. Given the director’s tendency for female protagonists a fun game is trying to figure out which victim would correlate to which leading lady. It’s a sick and bizarre, but it’s also pretty damn hilarious at the same time.
If you’re not a fan of Lars von Trier, I would suggest you steer clear of this film. While it still stands to be seen what will change from this unrated Director’s cut to the R-Rated version, I can probably imagine the tone of the film will remain the same. As a fan I got it and found it an extremely self-aware, fascinating deconstruction of the creative process as it pertains to the genesis of some of my favorite films. Lars von Trier proves he’s still the bad boy of the arthouse, turning in a film that makes Antichrist feel like a Disney film. The House That Jack Built is the best kind of cinema, the kind that provokes and challenges the viewer to digest the horrors on screen and deconstruct it layer by disturbing layer to discover the filmmaker’s true message, that making good film is not easy and sometimes can be a messy endeavor.