There’s no question that The House That Jack Built is the most controversial film of 2018. Upon premiering at Cannes, it received mass walkout and boos, while its director, Danish filmmaker Lars Von Trier, known for challenging audiences with films such as Nymphomaniac, Meloncholia, and Anti-Christ, has been facing some very serious allegations of sexual misconduct.
There’s a lot clouding the release of the film, making it somewhat of a forbidden fruit that cinephiles everywhere have been struggling with going to see. Well, I gave into my curiosity and the result was not what I was expecting.
For all intents and purposes- The House that Jack Built can be described as the “serial killer movie”. The story follows said serial killer, known only as “Jack” (Matt Dillon), as he recounts to an unseen companion (Bruno Ganz) his rise through five separate incidents. These incidents range from the slaying of a hitch-hiker (Uma Thurman) to the murder of an entire family on a hunting trip and every other downright despicable act in between.
On paper, the film sounds utterly reprehensible, and it’s hard to argue against that. Jack’s acts of violence are filmed in a documentary-esque fashion that makes the audience more detached from the murders, giving off the disturbing quality of a snuff film. The fourth incident in particular goes way too far in portraying Jack’s torture of a girlfriend named only “Simple” (Riley Keough) to the point where I considered walking out.
However, the violence is but a small part of The House That Jack Built. Beneath all the blood lies a gripping satire that utilizes provocation to awaken something in its audience. It’s the type of film that can make a murder into a slapstick farce- Incident 2 is an improbable laugh riot- or get away with using David Bowie’s “Fame” as basically the only soundtrack for the film.
Between every “incident” is a lengthy discussion between Jack and his companion where Jack drones on about the nature of art. These sequences resemble video essays and are likely to be grating to many, yet reveal a lot about the character. As he discusses more with his companion, Jack becomes less of a fictional character and more of a reflection of ego-driven male artists who use their art as an excuse for the horrible actions they commit, not unlike this film’s director himself.
This opens up the question of whether or not filmmakers like Von Trier should be given a platform to muse about their wrong-doing for a 155 minute runtime. Is this his attempt at an apology and if so, should it be accepted? Moreover, is the rampant amount of misogyny on display in this film towards its female characters- many of whom are referred to as simply “Lady” in the credits- excusable under the guise of satire?
I don’t know how to answer these questions, and that’s part of the appeal of The House That Jack Built. It made me feel conflicted, repulsed, introspective, and enraptured all at once. It was, well, art.
The glue that holds this film together is Matt Dillon. As Jack, he creates one of the most iconic movie monsters of our time- an intelligent, obsessive, utterly unhinged human being. While we can never truly sympathize with Jack, it’s impossible to take your eyes off of him. He’s an utter force of nature that rockets us through the incidents and into a bizarre epilogue.
Said epilogue goes into very different territory than the rest of the film. It’s visually stunning, more than a bit confusing, but somehow ties everything together in a way that will haunt me forever.
“Haunting” is an excellent word for The House That Jack Built. It’s hard to sort through my feelings for the film, since it’s content is so graphic and there’s a huge moral conflict surrounding Von Trier directing, but it’s a film I can’t ignore.
The House That Jack Built may be the most controversial film of 2018, but it’s also the boldest one. Provocateur Lars Von Trier has made his most provacative film yet, tearing down the myth of the tortured artist and providing an experience I’ll never be able to forget.