The House That Jack Built

Lars von Trier, 2018

*WARNING! If you like to watch a film without knowing how it’s going to turn out, and you’re likely to watch this, then it’s probably best not to read what follows here!*

I was expecting a von Trier film – violent, intelligent, close-to-the-bone, dark, confounding, frustrating, at times brilliant – and I got one! Throughout much of it, I was wondering what the point was. While sometimes blackly funny (the only time in your life you will laugh at a dead child), it just seemed intentionally provocative, lingering too long and taking too much delight in the violence. On reflection, I think it’s actually one of his best, a real comment on modern times. But it does need an edit.

It starts off really well: a black screen with two voices: who they are, we’re not quite sure. One is Matt Dillon’s Jack, he’s a serial killer. His first victim is an annoying woman played so well by Uma Thurman, she almost deserves to be murdered. Turns out Jack has cleanliness OCD (unable to leave one murder scene because he keeps fearing blood in unlikely places) and artistic/intellectual pretensions. He takes us through some of his crimes with some interesting (and some teenage) intellectual noodling along the way.

The film explores many valid ideas about negative space, destruction as an act of creation, pleasure and pain as ever-changing shadows. Jack is the criminal who hides in plain sight, a misogynistic, narcissistic psychopath who believes his violence is art. The egotistical artist, perhaps, whose singular vision means that nothing else matters.

As always, von Trier puts in so many ideas they almost get lost within each other. There’s one awful, torturous murder of a young woman, which drew claims of misogyny by the filmmaker. But actually, I think he is on her side; she asks for help and protection (even from a police officer!), but is dismissed by the world as unimportant and so meets a grizzly end (I couldn’t watch it). The world is complicit, in teaching her that her sex is her only value, in creating a mindset in her where she accepts his verbal abuse, and in finally ignoring her vulnerability and dangerous predicament. No-one actually gives a shit.

But anyway, by this point I was getting very bored. It just seemed rather gratuitous; let’s think of interesting ways to torture and kill people. Wonderfully, this is redeemed by the end act, as the police and the devil finally catch up with Jack, and he and his guide (who we discover is the one he’s been talking to in the dark) journey down through the circles of hell. The deepest of which includes a risky gamble, which the condemned will probably always take and will always lose.

If you can make it through most of the film, you are rewarded. In the end, it’s beautiful, imaginative and profound. It’s a bit like a fucked up version of Its A Wonderful Life, or Lynchian but on a grander scale. So much to think about; film students will be picking this one apart for a long time to come.

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