The House That Jack Built
You can, and probably should, accuse director Lars von Trier of being many things, but boring is never one of them. He’s inflammatory and intentionally offensive, and his films follow suit. Through the various genre filters he has flirted with over the years, he’s given us deeply personal and deeply disturbing reflections on the human condition at its lowest and at its ugliest. The House That Jack Built is no exception to von Trier’s expositions on the darkness that dwells in the heart of man, but for the first time, it’s really damn funny.
The House That Jack Built is tightly structured around Jack (Matt Dillon) telling five specific tales of his kills. As a serial killer, he has plenty of these adventures to recount, but he hand selects five to give examples of the breadth of his work. To whom is he telling these tales? The audience gets to soak in these bloody takes, however we aren’t the intended target of the recollections. Jack, as a disembodied voiceover, is recalling the stories to Verge (Bruno Ganz). Both voices discuss the incidents, one by one, as a way to review Jack’s devious behavior.
Sprinkled between these killings are Jack’s reflections on his non-murderous times on Earth, as well as his philosophical approaches to art and architecture. Jack fancies himself to be of far superior intelligence, however the more he talks about it, the more we realize that he’s just intensely egotistical. If he were so smart, why can’t he finish building his house? And why is it that he gets away with all these murders due to the mistakes of others, and not his own cunning? Jack is the very definition of an unreliable narrator, and when done well, those can be the most fascinating kind.
The humor in the film – and it’s glaring – comes mostly at Jack and his victims’ expenses. His first kill (Uma Thurman) is practically begging for it. A flat tire abandons her on the side of an empty road, and as soon as she talks Jack into giving her a ride, she won’t stop talking. The chatterbox even brings up the act of killing herself, before it may have occurred to Jack. Contrasting Jack’s deadpan voiceover with this woman’s friendly but verbally aggressive demeanor sets the tone for dark humor throughout the rest of the movie.
Given that it’s about killing people, the film balances body humor and body horror. True to von Trier’s established oeuvre of an unflinching camera, The House That Jack Built gets delightfully gross to both disgust and entertain, both us and Verge. In addition to the occasional slapstick, Jack himself is mocked throughout his own film. As an assumed psychopath, he must learn to perform as a regular person, and practicing these facial expressions in the mirror also mirrors the audience’s experience with the film. It’s both hilarious and terrifying.
A new element to the way that von Trier engages his villain with the film is through saturated pop culture references. The nods to Bob Dylan and David Bowie come across as airy as VH-1 specials from the ’90s, but their persistent recurrence and hollowness are just more tools for the filmmaker to show us the deranged mental state behind Jack’s nearly normal appearance.
Like many of von Trier’s films, The House That Jack Built is mean. Not only is it vicious and cruel towards the victims in the story, it’s mean-spirited in general. It’s unkind toward humanity as a whole, and offers no reprieve for people who want to somehow believe in silver linings and happy endings. For those who accept that darkness, and need a good belly laugh at its expense, The House That Jack Built is one of the best films of 2018.