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The House That Jack Built Review

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The House That Jack Built | 2018 Cannes Film Festival Review

The House That Jack Built | 2018 Cannes Film Festival Review

Lars and the Unreal Girls: The Danish Provocateur Pushes Buttons in Cruel, Grotesque Portrait of a Serial Killer

The House That Jack Built Poster“O Muse, Recount to me the Causes” might have been a bit too trite an opening for the latest divisive deliberation on mankind’s misogyny in Lars Von Trier’s serial killer saga The House That Jack Built. Utilizing a male lead, a rarity for the Danish auteur, and styled similarly to the bracketed chapters of 2013’s sex addiction teaser Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 & 2, Von Trier, despite his highly publicized battles with depression and alcoholism, has lost none of his proclivities for shock value with a film many have categorized as distasteful, disastrous, and as epically polarizing as any of his past art-house juggernauts. Playful banter between the eponymous Jack and the spirt of Virgil, the Latin poet who composed the epic poem Aeneid, resembles a sordid formulation on Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, a curious game of words and themes as a soul is slowly guided to his hellish end as he recounts five macabre chapters from his butchery.

In the 1970s Pacific Northwest, Jack (Matt Dillon) is a lost soul who confesses an inability to properly settle how to design his house, perhaps distracted by his predilection for viciously killing people. Relaying his story via an extended conversation with a man referred to as Verge (Bruno Ganz), Jack relays a select number of incidents which took place over his years as the serial killer known as Mr. Sophistication. Interpreting each incident as a work of art, each chapter finds Jack progressing in his quest for more outlandish, more artistic ways of killing his victims.

Women and children never fare well in a Lars Von Trier film, so no one should be surprised at the level of degradation a handful of peripheral victims experience as the disposable detritus in Jack’s tapestry of mayhem. But without the sympathetic femme center we’re usually accustomed to, The House That Jack Built presents as a harsh, overtly grotesque and ceaselessly grim exercise even for Trier. But then what is the purpose of viewing a sociopath in his element other than to be repelled, a convenient way to confirm a baseline of humanity? This is a film which immediately courts the need for a deeper explanation as to its purpose and existence. After all, what is the point? One may as well pose the question to a serial killer, especially one whose banality frustratingly seems to prove Von Trier’s point. The answer may have something to do with how we let them—not just killers and madmen, but perhaps Von Trier, who has spent decades exorcizing his demons in films which have either been damned or embraced but nevertheless continually inspired conversation.

But maybe, and perhaps subconsciously, this works best as a portrait of the exaggerated possibilities of white patriarchy, wherein white heterosexual men are allowed the kind of free reign to express whatever it is they so choose, ultimately at the expense (and here, the lives) of others.

There’s an inescapable rigidity to The House That Jack Built, which is designed (or is engineered a better word?) to reflect the architectural interests of Jack, a man unable, it seems, to pinpoint what exactly he wants his home to look like. The eventual grisly formation of his final house is but one of many obvious metaphors dotted throughout, in sequences which range from silly to outright tasteless before vaunting us into the sort of flourishes Von Trier’s core audience desires.

The film’s opening sequence finds Uma Thurman returning to Von Trier duty after some entertaining scene stealing in Nymphomaniac. Here, the actress is fashioned into a screwball comedy routine which seems jarring, her abrasive shrillness used as an excuse for Jack to kill her with, of all things, a broken jack. The next sequence, featuring a daffy Siobhan Fallon Hogan, is also a queasy mix of laughable strangeness (perhaps best realized through the use of the film’s musical cues to underline Jack’s problematic OCD tics).

By the time we get to Riley Keough’s denouement, which confirms the gleeful pattern of macabre misogyny (in case it had ever before been in doubt), many will either have written off the film as Von Trier’s trashiest attempt at shock value while others should appreciate its ability to unnerve amongst audiences completely desensitized to base levels of humanity across all platforms.

DP Manuel Alberto Claro, who collaborated with Von Trier on his two previous features Melancholia and Nymphomaniac, returns to a similar visual palette in their last project, another gray, characterless wasteland in Von Trier’s preferred Brechtian landscape. Mt. St. Helens provides an inverse metaphor for where Jack’s headed, courtesy of Verge, who exists as a Charon figure, guiding Jack across the river Styx. The film’s finale, which descends into a vibrant approximation of doom, is the maudlin cherry on top of a gruesome cake which will be loathed and praised, and unlikely to sway either perspective’s penchant for art as supreme suffering.

Reviewed on May 15th at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival – Out of Competition. 155 Mins.

★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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