Lars von Triers new film The House That Jack Built is simply one of the best movies in recent years. It is a crazy masterpiece, a stimulating piece of art, a decent into hell. I thought that it would be difficult for the Danish director to make a better film than Nymphomaniac Vol. I (2013) but here is the counterexample. Let’s dive right into the matter.
Cruel, philosophical, funny
The House That Jack Built is a two and a half hours tour de force in the mind of a serial killer set in the 1970s in the West Coast of the US. The portrait of Jack is presented through a philosophical and occasional humorous tale. And that is what the movie makes so exceptional, so unique. Never ever have I seen a film before which played like this with my feelings. After Nymphomanic Vol. I I cried and laughed at the same time, but during The House That Jack Built I laughed even though I was disgusted and nauseated. I never thought that I would burst out laughing while children a killed by a bloody serial killer… but I did and I was embarrassed about it. People in the cinema staired at me as if I was as disturbed as Jack! It was really discomfortable and bizarre. Such strange feelings… von Trier what have done with me?
Jack, a serial killer with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), describes to his imaginary devil figure Verge (what is he exactly? kind of a metaphysical therapist? ) five randomly chosen incidents over a 12-year period. By “incidents” he means gruesome murders. All the five killings are perfectly well-written and directed by von Trier. Especially the second incident is awesome in it’s ridiculousness. I’m not going into detail but at the end of the scene Jack drags the victim’s body along the road, face down, from the back of his van, which seems like an act of grandiose self-sabotage, because the dead body leaves a trail of blood and flesh on the streets, clearly visible for everyone even if the scene takes place at night. When Jack realizes then that the rain washes away the trail he has left behind – that’s just genius: it’s as if someone greater were looking out for him. Over the twelve years he becomes more and more megalomaniac and calls himself “Mr. Sophistication”. At the same time von Trier plays David Bowie’s Fame again and again which creates a bizarre atmosphere. This great song mixed with these atrocities? Strange to say but the viewer is feeling quite well. He understands that Jack is narcissism in it’s pure state but he wants more. I think that the viewer can’t wait to see Mr. Sophistication going crazier and crazier!
The kind of bloody frenzy an ermine experiences in a hen house (Jack)
During Jack’s tale we never feel empathy with him – and this absence of empathy mirrors Jacks own absence of it. And in this way we are exactly like him! That’s a stroke of genius from von Trier. And also the explanation why the murders a cruel to watch but never really “said” to feel. We see and hear all through the protagonist Jack – for him there are no feelings. Only a certain detached sense of humour only psychopaths can have.
Now to the more philosophical point of the movie. Getting the artistic Nymphomaniac approach to another level, von Trier sieves Jack’s five incidents with thoughts and theories on often surprising subjects: architecture (Jack’s original obsession), classic art, the fermenting of grapes, the Stuka dive-bomber, and even Goethe and the Nazi concentration camps. Jack is justifying his actions with these more noble thoughts, treating murder as an art form. The monologue becomes a theory of art, a theory of a certain way of life. The anecdotes are too juicy to be revealed here. But it’s not only a monologue, it’s also a dialog. Verge – this strange wise man – is sometimes challenging Jack’s thoughts and that is interesting to watch.
The most crazy moments are when Jack creates art with his corpses. He takes pictures of the dead bodies bizarrly arranged or makes macabre stagings. That’s so, so strange to watch.
By the way: The titel of the movie is directly inspired by the british poem This is the House that Jack Built. The story of it, however, does not really tell of Jack’s house or even of Jack himself who built it, but shows how this house is indirectly connected to other people and things, such as a dirty man or an abandoned girl, and the connections between these people and small events. In total there are 12 “occurences”. Von Triers film describes a period of 12 years. And in it the incidents are more important than the construction of the house. Ironic or not? Von Trier was himself inspired by art.
The old cathedrals often have sublime artworks hidden away in the darkest corners for only God to see. The same goes for murder. (Jack)
Matt Dillon’s crazy good performance
The film would not have been the same without Dillon. He’s thoroughly believable as a lonely, empty and doomed person walking towards eternal damnation. Dillon is like the incarnation of the absence of empathy. He plays really well between being brutal and hilarous at the same time.
It is worth noting that here von Trier has for the first time a man as the only main protagonist. After years of depicting female protagonists, this is a major turnaround for the Danish director. He even uses Jack as a mouthpiece to critisze modern female dominance: “Why is it always a man’s fault? Women are always victims. Men are always criminals.”
Dante’s decent to hell
The end of the film is like a modern version of Dante Aligheri (Jack) guided by Virgil (Verge) through hell in the Divine Comedy: Jack is rescued by Verge from the police, and the two of them begin their journey to the underworld. They discover the different circles of hell – but Jack doesn’t survive the inferno (in opposite to Dante in his Divine Comedy).
What does it tell us? That bad people end up in hell? Yes and no. First of all, it is logic that the movie finishes with Jack literally “falling” in the deepest place in hell. For the spectator the life of Jack was hell but not for our serial killer. Instead, the real hell is salvation for the viewer, but hell for Jack. Interesting thing. There is another way to read it: Jack always needs to continue to murder. The satisfaction of one killing only lasts for some time. Then he is again in “blood frenzy”. That is his real weakness, beging trapped in that “infernal dead circle”. A circle in which he will be trapped for ever – and that is hell. That’s also why he never finished his house. His killing nature destroyed everything, also his will to build that house he dreamed of. The only house he builds at the end is a house with all the persons he has killed over the years – but only with the help of Verge.
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said: “Life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom.” That applies perfectly to Jack.
The House That Jack Built shows von Trier at its best. It is a sadistic dive into a psychotic internal monologue (or dialog?), with hilarious, absurd moments and intellectual detours about the nature of art, and puts considerable effort into stimulating discomfort at certain key moments. Von Trier’s latest film does exactly what movies should do: provoke a reaction, a feeling by the viewer! I can guarantee that everyone will be discomfortabe and think twice about what he just saw!
Until then keep watching!