The House That Jack Built

Denmark (2018) Dir. Lars von Trier

What makes a serial killer the way they are? It’s probably fair to say the last filmmaker we would want to ponder this question and put his musings on film is Lars von Trier, but he has never cared what people think of him anyway.

The serial killer in question is Jack (Matt Dillon), well spoken, intelligent, artistic, but also disturbed. Talking to somebody named Verge (Bruno Ganz), Jack talks about some of his murders over a twelve-year period in great detail, sharing the askew philosophy behind his actions and the rural childhood which shaped his evil ways.

Each murder is referred to as an “incident” and we are treated to five of them betwixt the psychoanalyst discussion from Jack as he tries to frame the killings as a work of art, relating them to renowned classical works and folklore tales by way of suggesting a philosophical connection between them. When he is done, Jack take the bodies back to his home, takes posed photos of them then stores them in a huge walk-in freezer.

Lars von Trier is one of those filmmakers that are hard to describe to someone who has never seen his works, and for those who have, is someone hard to figure out what he is trying to say or prove. Through his uncompromising and confrontational nature, von Trier is not a darling of the critics nor does he court the mainstream, but any real intent to court controversy actually seems accidental – either that or von Trier really isn’t aware or how abrasive and challenging is films are.

We can add The House That Jack Built to the list of von Trier films one should approach with caution, even if you are experienced in sitting through his uniquely dark, esoteric, and unflinching oeuvre. It is unlike his other works in many ways yet unmistakably a von Trier film in its obtuse boldness which as ever borders on pretension and arrogance – we either get it or we don’t but I doubt von Trier even cares.

Cinema can be a therapeutic thing for both the film maker and the audience but with von Trier, we find ourselves being led into a world that is arguably alien to most of us yet set very much somewhere recognisable and plausible. This film begins in the 1970’s with the first “incident” which is as tropey as they come – a woman (Uma Thurman) needs help as her car has a flat tyre and her carjack is broken, and guess who happens to be driving past?

Yet, it is cheekily Meta; the woman mocks Jack for picking her up as she might be a serial killer, or maybe she is getting in a car with one. She rattles off the clichés that occur in such fictional scenarios, which is von Trier teasing that he might let them play out just to be ironic, but it could also be a way of addressing the violence and gruesome content in his films is “art” and a staple of cinema that shouldn’t be seen as real.

One thing we can take away from this film is that it doesn’t appear to justify or celebrate cold-blooded murder, although this first one does almost do this. The woman is rather obnoxious in her pleading with Jack to help her, oblivious to his disinterested refusal and desire to leave but he acquiesces anyway. However, her non-stop chatter pushes Jack too far and he shuts her up for good using the broken carjack, which is the closest von Trier gets to making Jack a harangued victim snapping.

Everything else is unapologetically gratuitous, senseless and in one case, grotesque. When Jack actually confesses to being the serial killer known as “Mr. Sophistication” to one victim, she tells a policeman who doesn’t believe her because she has been drinking. So it’s society’s fault now. That is a little reductive but von Trier has a point for once.

With the first four victims all being female this may imply to some von Trier is his usual misogynistic self, which Verge brings up to expose Jack’s view that women are stupid thus easy prey. But the final incident involving a group of men involuntarily helping Jack with a twisted experiment at least shows Jack is an equal opportunity psychopath.

But where is it all leading to? The final act sees the film disappear up its own backside unless one is familiar with Dante’s Inferno and even if you are it is still pretentious tosh that doesn’t offer any answers. Not that we expected any from a man who tries to argue history’s most heinous figures like Hitler, Stalin, Chairman Mao, Pol Pot, etc. are artists and their brutal legacy is akin to anything displayed in a gallery or museum.

Or it simple could be that von Trier really does have a damaged psyche and a lifetime of psychological issues and feels the only way he can expunge them is through making the rest of us suffer. Maybe he really is a misunderstood genius and we are not able to read any profound meaning behind the shocking images because he is so far ahead of us – the sign of a true artist or a gifted conman?

As I have mused about maverick Japanese directors like Sion Sono and Takashi Miike, it is amazing how they can get respected actors to play deviant roles and von Trier is in the same camp. How else do you explain former 80’s Brat Packer Matt Dillon to be such a chilling evil creature? Or Sofie Gråbøl, Uma Thurman, and the legendary Bruno Ganz to join in the grisly fun?

The answer may never come, but if The House That Jack Built is any indicator, they will still be lining up regardless. In recommending this sprawling, overlong (2 ½ hours), and difficult film, I fear the queue for willing viewers will be far shorter. For von Trier fans only.