The Pitch: Tearing a page or two from Dante’s Inferno — okay, a deliberate handful — Lars von Trier offers up an unnerving parable about an obsessive-compulsive architect-turned-serial killer named Jack (Matt Dillon), who torturously stalks the state of Washington during the ’70s and ’80s. Over the course of 12 years and through five harrowing incidents, we watch Jack spiral deeper into madness as he meticulously talks through his reasoning and carnal desires with an off-screen accomplice named Virge.
“See? It’s OK. He Saw It On the Television”: Originally, von Trier intended for The House That Jack Built to be a television series, and you can see the roots of that idea in this sprawling, 155-minute feature. (Mind you, this writer is reviewing the director’s cut that was originally screened at Cannes and released for a single night on November 28th.) It’s episodic by design as we pivot from one major incident in Jack’s life to another, which affords new locales for each chapter — from hunting grounds to neighborhoods to skid row — that construct an expansive yet self-contained world.
In many ways, it’s a spiritual descendent of his last film, 2013’s two-part feature Nymphomaniac, which similarly focused on a character spiraling out of control in an episodic manner. Whereas that film absolutely needed to be broken down into two parts, The House That Jack Built feels completely at whole with itself, and von Trier never cracks the foundation that keeps the story together, no pun intended. Even when he shifts into tangential meditations on chaos and creation, it never feels as if he’s veering off course. Like Jack, there’s an obsessive finesse to the madness.
Cannes Stop the Feeling: The House That Jack Built marked von Trier’s epic return to the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, and the film certainly anticipates that comeback. If you recall, the festival declared von Trier a “persona non grata” in 2011 after he made some controversial remarks about his German heritage and the Nazi party while promoting Melancholia. True to his rebellious heart, von Trier punches even harder on that subject, chewing loudly on the artistic merits of fascist iconography and their wartime efforts, while also calling his own works into question.
Yes, there’s an entire meta-digression that involves his entire oeuvre — Dogville, Antichrist, Melancholia, it’s all there — as Jack and Virge continue to break down the divisive nature of art. Depending on where you stand, it can be seen as either repentance for his own work, or a major fuck you to his critics, the latter of which wouldn’t be too surprising given the Dantesque parallels and allusions. After all, Dante Alighieri was hardly above the idea of throwing his enemies into his own picturesque hell, and one could argue that’s exactly what von Trier does with The House That Jack Built.
So, it’s not surprising he was both derided and applauded this year.
The House of Dillon: After toiling away in bad comedies and forgettable dramas, Dillon has finally returned, delivering a performance that topples over his string of greatest hits, from The Outsiders to Drugstore Cowboy to Singles to The Saint of Fort Washington. This is tough work, too, as Dillon shoulders von Trier’s entire vision by being tasked to narrate and lead each scene through a range of personalities.
Dillon never falters, not once, indulging in his own eclectic palette by thumbing through his rich back catalogue. From reclusive creeps to would-be drill sergeants, dickhead boyfriends to ticking time bombs, Dillon nails every turn, exuding an energy that’s at once both addictive and revolting. It’s easy to hate a killer, but it’s harder to love one, and while he doesn’t warrant Valentines, Dillon’s Jack demands your heart. And that’s exactly what von Trier needs from you.
The Jack That We Built: It’s a strange world we live in, where murderers, rapists, and predators are a source of entertainment. Blame it on Thomas Harris, blame it on a 24-hour news cycle, or simply blame it on the human condition, but murder-death-kill is something that tickles everyone’s fancy. Yes, even those who cluck their tongues at the subject and say, “It’s not for me” We’re human; life and death are a universal virtues that fascinate us from our first breath in this world to our very last dying gasp. And really, nobody knows this better than von Trier.
Prior to production, von Trier spent years researching the psychology of serial killers, and his work is all over The House That Jack Built. While some may dismiss the back and forths between Jack and Virge as pedantic and too scholastic, they would be writing off some of the most compelling rhetoric on the topic to ever hit the screen. The dialogue that von Trier wields between the incidents is not only deeply fascinating, but downright stunning in its comprehension of the source material, particularly the psychology of killers in the context of obsession and ego.
It helps that von Trier knows his audience too well, as evidenced by his framing device of the five incidents. It’s essentially a “one for you, one for me” compromise that has the film oscillating between Jack’s violent exploits and von Trier’s visual essays, the latter of which eventually take on a sinister tone that might make Herzog blush. On paper this might sound quite exhausting, but onscreen, von Trier glides through each medium with an enticing scrapbook of historical artifacts and a dizzying array of animation that all flows with sophistication and grace.
Of course, this all feeds into the unnerving notion that what we’re seeing is what we want to be seeing. So much of the film centers around the divide between tigers and sheep in the context of predators and victims, but in the end, we’re the sheep to von Trier’s salivating tiger. Again, we’re a society preternaturally intrigued by the macabre, whether we want to admit it or not, and von Trier capitalizes on those feeling by subverting our relationships to them, flicking on the lights to the dark rooms inside our minds that we traditionally keep locked and bordered up.
It’s in that sense that the film is deeply disturbing.
The Verdict: The House That Jack Built is an audacious and divisive film, sure, but only because of the context surrounding the film. The gore! The violence! The subject material! Oh my! At its core, though, von Trier has actually assembled his most accessible work to date. It’s a digestible watch at 155 minutes that doesn’t fuss around with what it wants to say, getting from point A to point Hell without having to make any sacrifices on the creative front. No, this is peak von Trier — von Trier at his most von Trieriest, if you will — and yet it’s downright enjoyable.
If anything, that’s perhaps the most disturbing takeaway from the entire experience. With all due respect to von Trier, he isn’t exactly a comedic mastermind, and yet somehow The House That Jack Built is one of the funniest films of 2018. No kidding! From the film’s stark, humble beginnings to its fiery, hellish end, von Trier always has his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, as if he’s standing in the corner giggling from behind a marked-up copy of either The Canterbury Tales or Dante’s Inferno.
It’s darkly comical stuff that gets in your bones, which, of course, is the point. It’s all part of von Trier’s rich subversion, stemming from the conceit that this is entertainment, that these awful atrocities are as equally eternal as anything we may put in museums or celebrate in history books. How you respectively stomach those thoughts and feelings is where the terror truly begins, and where the power of The House That Jack Built ultimately takes over. Because in the end, we’re all spiraling out of control.
Such is life.