Movie Review – The House That Jack Built
by Johnny De Jesus
The Movie Guys
While watching Lars von Trier’s newest film, The House that Jack Built, it’s hard to picture the target audience. It’s far too gory and dark for the arthouse crowd but far too arthouse and experimental for the horror crowd. It can easily fit on a list of films that you could only recommend to a handful of people or maybe to someone you really don’t like.
The film stars Matt Dillon as Jack, a serial killer with as many problems as he has victims. He is telling his story to a mystery man, Verge, played by Bruno Ganz, who we mainly just hear and not see. Jack tells of five random incidents from his killing spree and if the films weren’t so long, this could go as a companion piece to von Trier’s previous film, Nymphomaniac, as it follows a similar story structure. I was also reminded of the dark comedy Man Bites Dog, also about a serial killer.
Matt Dillon plays the title role well, not as a charming or charismatic serial killer, but almost like someone trying to figure out how to even be a person. There are a couple scenes where he tapes pictures of people next to a mirror and he tries to imitate their facial expressions. He’s a smart person but can’t socialize with people. The female characters in the film are often portrayed as dumb and the characters even bring that up, as if Jack is either telling his story in a way to make him seem more superior to them or perhaps we’re seeing his true feelings about women. It’s hard to say what von Trier really is trying to say with that either, he’s known to have his female characters go through the wringer in majority of his films. As far as Ganz’s part, 90% of him is through a voiceover, almost like a priest hearing Jack’s confession, and for the most it, it’s him judging Jack or questioning him.
Aside from the five incidents, the story wanders a bit, either in ways to justify Jack’s reasoning or to compare and contrast what is being shown. Von Trier uses various clips, editing techniques and music cues to keep the film from being just a serial killer horror film. Surprisingly, he even uses clips from his previous films, which reminded me of when Spike Lee had a character reference him in Bamboozled. I didn’t think it worked then and I don’t think it works here either. There is definitely a lot going on in the film and there are a lot of tonal shifts, where, despite such violent scenes, there are also moments that make you laugh. Speaking of the violence, it does get pretty, pretty violent at times, at least for a more mainstream film. I watched the unrated director’s cut, so I can only imagine what cuts will be made to secure an R rating. When it was shown at Cannes, there were tales of about a hundred people walking out of the screening. I suppose I can understand why. During my screening of about thirty people, there were a few oohs and ahhs at times, but no walkouts. It’s hard to gauge if the average viewer would sit through certain scenes, I mean, it’s no The Passion of the Christ, but in certain ways it’s more intense than any Saw film, more close to that New French Extremity film wave.
The humor of the film is just as dark at times but almost never used cheaply to lighten the mood of a violent scene, it just happens to have a funny bit in there. I was reminded of Psycho in the sense that at a couple times, you find yourself hoping that Jack won’t get caught, despite him doing such horrible things. That’s the work of a great director I suppose, but what does that say about you the audience member?
Von Trier sticks with his handheld camera style and he’s one of the few directors who can use that style successfully without giving it that found footage feel, something he’s honed over the years. There are a lot of times you’re so close to the characters where it feels like you’re there too, possibly adding to the horror as you’re a witness or accomplice. The editing stands out for sure, sometimes feeling like a strange collage, adding historical clips, film clips, animation, repetition to get a point across, and David Bowie music cues, it keeps the film engaging, often like you’re listening to a debate.
At two and a half hours though, the film could be trimmed here and there. There were a couple parts that went on a little too long, no doubt to build tension. It reminded me of recent Tarantino films where he exercised a similar tension-building style, neither work for me. This is for sure a film that will take some time to process and digest to say the least. I’m still not sure how I feel about it. I know for sure I enjoyed it more than Antichrist but I don’t know if it stuck the ending, I may have to re-watch it to see if I change my mind. I can’t really say I’d recommend this to many people, but if you’re already a fan of his, you might as well check it out.
Directed by: Lars von Trier
Release Date: December 14, 2018
Run Time: 152 Minutes
Distributor: IFC Films