The House That Jack Built: Lars Von Trier’s ambitiously sadistic serial killer portrait

16th December 2018

Building a structure, regardless of its use as a home, office space or social one is a difficult task. Assembling the will power, materials and mental knowhow to create a unique space is a test of resolve. Yet, what can be achieved from a seminal piece of architecture appears a deeply rewards experience, even from simply viewing Grand Designs is this notion clear. Acting as his own Kevin McCloud, Lars Von Trier returns back to cinemas with a more perverse structure than most, The House That Jack Built.
Screening at Cannes 2018, the film’s highly provocative nature has been repeatedly discussed at length from the moment walk outs occurred on the Reverie. To some, there is more chaos in another house at the moment, The Commons for example, yet what the Danish director achieves is a story in the ilk of a medieval morality tale fused with a dexterous post-modern tone.
Jack (Matt Dillon) not only acts as the protagonist of the tale, but the unreliable narrator. Leading the viewer down a dark path of validating his artistic obsessions for murder, one swiftly understands what drives this man to sadistic evil acts . This point is something that truly cannot be said for numerous serial killers in cinema who are blank canvases. Cutting to the core of his drive offers a psychological dissection of the mind, akin in to David Fincher’s Mindhunter.
To the man, murder and dead human bodies are the perfect canvas for art. Expositional outlining his ceremonial habits to Verge (Bruno Ganz), five random acts are selected over a decade to be explained in the darkest detail. Delivered in voice over, the blank frame is all that is given when the two discuss his work. Withdrawing any visual language in these moments leaves an air of suspense regarding the location of their setting. Still, what Von Trier later comes to reveal is a Faustian setting rarely witnessed on screen.

The House That Jack Built Candid Magazine
Scene from ‘The House That Jack Built'.

The murders that Jack commits, fuels his design and desire to succeed as an architect of his own fate and not an engineer of his own downfall. As a child he commits cruel acts of cutting duck’s webbed feet, as an adult he uses bodies to create strange shapes, then photographing them. In these mediums, Von Trier appears to suggest that evil or criminal acts are as naturally as the cutting of the wheat in summer- literally both intercut in one sequence.
The more gruesome acts that Jack commits rightly do deserve to be discussed at length. Though one particular sequence with Riley Keough’s ‘Simple’ literally cuts too close to the bone, one cannot but help be drawn to towards the director’s unapologetic tone for placing his own anxieties on screen. Intercutting Dillon’s devilishly delightful performance, images of Von Trier’s own films emerge from the discussion of artistic representation itself. Assessing his own creations through intertextuality serves to underline the analysis which is taken, thus importance, to art in modern society.
Extending this mischievous attitude to filmmaking is further unearthed in self-referential lines of dialogue between characters. Jack’s first victim in all this, Uma Thurman’s ‘Lady One’ comes to directly address the fact that the man who has offered her a lift to the nearest mechanic could well be a serial killer. What makes these encounters darkly comic are the lengths to which they are firstly acted, particularly in Dillon. Secondly, the self-aware nature to them open interacts with the slasher genre as a consumptive form of film to certain audiences.
It must be said that although The House That Jack Built proved rewarding in my case, this cannot be said for other reviews which spell out its pitfalls. Openly aware of its issues, all debate is relevant in this particularly idiosyncratic piece of filmmaking.
Whether this is Von Trier’s last film will remain to be seen. However, his latest feature operates comparably in a lineage of dark introspections into humanity’s most malice spades. Without Dante’s Inferno or Marlowe’s Faustus who knows where arts as a collective would be. As the cunning Mephistopheles pronounces in the latter play’s final moments: “It is a comfort to the wretched to have companions in misery”. To the director himself, his latest film proves to become this comfort. Though I am hesitant to equate The House That Jack Built to those classic texts, it’s ambitions, like Faustus, knows no earthly bounds.
The House That Jack Built is out now.

Words by Alasdair Bayman @alasdairbayman.
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