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Thursday, December 6, 2018

The House That Jack Built

The House That Jack Built premiered out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year where it caused quite a stir. Director Lars von Trier is known for releasing brutal and difficult movies, so reports from Cannes of walk outs and boos following the screening painted the image of a film that would be equally hard and as uncomfortable a viewing experience as his earlier work.

The core of the movie is Matt Dillon’s fantastic performance as the film’s psychopathic lead – Jack, a serial killer. The viewer observes five of the “incidents” that shaped Jack as he discusses them with an unseen man named Verge (Bruno Ganz). At first, Jack attempts to blend in to society, practicing putting on a false fa├žade in front of the mirror to fool those around him. Over the course of the movie, he becomes increasingly more daring in his actions as killing’s therapeutic release becomes less fulfilling to his inner demons. Jack is shown more than once to be an audacious killer. He murders in the bright of day, on public roads, or in houses with open blinds before sloppily taking the bodies to a building that he owns which hosts a large walk-in freezer. Often, his trail ends up being covered by acts of God. Acts he then tests by taunting the police, sending photos to reporters, and bringing a body back to the scene of a crime – by walking in front of rows of occupied apartments. Does this guy want to get caught?

There are other familiar faces present in the movie. Uma Thurman plays Woman 1, Jack’s victim in the first described incident. It isn’t revealed if she is Jack’s first murder or one of his first. Her insistence that Jack assist her in fixing her broken jack followed by her constant pestering and rude commentary once he acquiesces to giving her a ride make one wonder if his interactions with her were the straw that broke the camel’s back. Would he have still become this monster if he hadn’t stopped to help her or was killing her on his mind when he initially stopped? Other victims include Siobhan Fallon Hogan and Riley Keough, whose names you might not recognize but whose faces you probably will.

Director Lars von Trier successfully manages to combine aspects of 1970’s exploitation cinema with art-house ideology. The movie fittingly takes place in the 70s, when many infamous serial killers were active. Like the exploitation flicks of that time period, von Trier’s film focuses on the depravity of the main character through an examination of his thought process and by observing a few of his many heinous acts. The House that Jack Built brings to mind movies such as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or Nightmares in a Damaged Brain, though it’s far removed from the exploitative nature of those two movies. The film’s harsher aspects, which are most likely causing the uproar with cinema-goers, have been included in other movies, in much more graphic presentations (see the two before mentioned titles, director Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, or one of the hundreds of genre films from that time period), so the uproar over the material is hard to grasp and feels exaggerated. Maybe a lot of the controversy from Cannes is due to the fact that it was shown to an audience of people not expecting to so bluntly see the grimier side of cinema.

Taking a cue from his previous work, von Trier approaches the material for The House that Jack Built in the same fashion he took with Nymphomaniac. In that film, a woman explains to a man several sexual exploits that have happened throughout her life which he then relates to banal things such as fishing. Throughout and after each of the five incidents shown in The House that Jack Built, Jack relates his murders, which he views as his artwork, to what he thinks of as great art or to specific artists. Throwing in the viewers face the phrase beauty is in the eye of the beholder. At what point does this idea stop applying? Verge acts as Jack’s guide, questioning his motives and explanations as he relates his tableaus to works of architects, musicians, painters, and eventually dictators.

Von Trier saves the more artsy elements for the films finale. The ending is filled with the beautiful slow motion photography that was unleashed from the beginning in movies like Anti-Christ and Melancholia. As much as I’d like to describe some of this, I’ll restrain myself. Too much analysis or commentary on this film would veer into spoiler territory. Part of the “fun” in watching a movie like this is dissecting it yourself and discussing it with others after viewing it. As in his other films, von Trier throws in visual cues that are meant to be metaphorical. Though, like the brazen protagonist, The House that Jack Built is more forthcoming with its comparisons and imagery.

Besides the before mentioned Nymphomaniac (surprisingly given its length and subject), The House that Jack Built is easily the most accessible of von Trier’s work. The flow of the movie is excellent. There is a great balance between its straight-forward narrative moments with its introspective analysis before unleashing the enigmatic epilogue. The epilogue raises its own set of questions, but I won’t go into that. The House that Jack Built uses the shaky cam approach often as von Trier did in his 2011 movie Melancholia. Here the technique is used more sparingly and less distractedly, though it’s appropriate for both films to highlight the inner turmoil of the leads. Don’t be alarmed if you find yourself laughing at some of the horrific things unfolding on screen. The film was intended to be humorous as much as it was intended to shock.

The House that Jack Built continues to ride a wave of controversy following the screening on November 28 of von Trier’s director’s cut. The MPAA has decided to make a fuss over the movie distributor’s, IFC, failure to acquire the appropriate waiver to show the unrated version in theaters and for releasing it so close to the film’s R-rated release, December 14. They claim that this action undermines the effectiveness of the group and diminishes the trust of the parents who use the ratings. Does that even sound like a logical argument to anyone after the movie I’ve just described? Who would take their child to see this movie?
(Review by Bret Oswald)

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