Five years after the highly controversial "Nymphomaniac", Lars von Trier presents yet another movie which polarizes the audience. Despite the director’s characteristic structure, the film proves to be a somewhat fresh addition to the usually heavy and intellectually engaging works of the Danish director.
"The House that Jack Built" tells a story of a serial killer on a 12-year killing spree. In typical 'Von Trier fashion' we are led through the story by a dialogue between two voices - one of Jack and the other one of an unknown character named Verge. The characters narrate through a series of five “incidents”, vignettes that the movie is organised into, each one telling a story of a different murder committed by Jack.
By far the most unique aspect of the movie, if we put it in the context of Von Trier’s filmography, is the humour. When we compare "The House that Jack Built" to other works of the director we immediately notice the amount of it present, especially in the first half. The dark comedy is a great counter-balance for many gruesome shots, oftentimes hyper realistic and revolting. The coupling of these two contrasting aspects creates a unique viewing experience that delivers a plethora of interesting ideas in a not so heavy-to-digest way. Additionally, it is something no one probably expected of the Scandinavian director, which definitely makes for an interesting experience for Von Trier’s avid fans. In the second part of the movie, however, the pace slows down for a short time and the focus shifts to essay-like explorations on art, the nature of good and evil, architecture, poetry and modern history icons - a classic instalment of almost all Von Trier films. It is debated whether shift was the right decision to make but it surely was expected.
Many regard these movie “essays” as one of the biggest faults of this movie. The controversy they inspire is that their addition makes for a tedious experience and that they ruined what could have been an interesting and unique film from von Trier. In my opinion, it is hard to say whether these “essays” further the plot itself in any way. However, in many Von Trier films, the plot is just a means to invite discussion on more important topics that transcend the movie itself. Their addition does not produce an in-cohesive movie either, as both types of narration add to one another. The classic movie part serve as a base for the essay sections, which, in turn, make the viewer think more deeply about what has happened on-screen.
We could ask if it is truly necessary for this analysis material to be included in the film. Mostly because at times it seems to ruin the pace of the action itself since there is simply too much of it. Hemingway’s beloved rule says, “show, don’t tell" and even though he used it in writing and here we tackle cinema, I believe that this rule applies to art at large. We could ask if Von Trier ever read Hemingway. Knowing the breadth and depth of his knowledge, which he transfers onto the screen, I would be tempted to say that it is an intentional choice as opposed to a manifestation of an inability from his part. And even if we cut out all those “essays” we would probably have a sufficiently good stand-alone movie; it simply would not be a Lars von Trier movie without them.
It would also not be a Lars von Trier movie without impeccable acting and interestingly written characters. Many have dubbed the creation of Matt Dillon in his movie as the actor's finest role. And while we hear that too often about other actors, there is something about Dillon’s character that produces conflicting emotions in the viewer, in a good way. It is hard to produce an antihero who is so likable and so disgusting at the same time. The character is not portrayed like many other serial killer psychopaths in the cinema - Hannibal Lecter, for example, has no human quality that we can relate to as “normal” individuals.
Von Trier creates a character full of his own struggles, from neuroticism and OCD to perfectionism. This portrayal of a killer depicts a person who does not characterise himself only by killing others, but one who also has his weaknesses, thereby producing an antihero that we find ourselves rooting for at times, despite the horrible things he is doing. Many critics have spoken of the violence in this movie being excessive at times, but I am of the opinion that that is not the case. Some say that gruesome shots are much more than necessary for the purposes that the director wants to achieve and that the only reason Von Trier puts them there is for marketing purposes. I think that the violence is a key aspect of portraying the character Von Trier wants to create. Jack does not have any remorse, no matter who he kills. He enjoys torturing people and does not exhibit any empathy for them. Taking all those gruesome scenes away or making them less graphic would only produce an incomplete, toned down version, which would not convey the extent of Jack’s character. In fact, it would take away a big part of why the film is so great - the aforementioned contrast.
Von Trier shares his vast knowledge with the audience and makes us think about things much greater than the movie itself. He makes the experience of going to the cinema different from one solely for the sake of entertainment. He proposes new ideas and invites us to a discussion, all of which is wrapped around with great visuals, acting, music and a healthy dose of dark humour. Definitely worth watching.
Edited by Eloïse Wright, Head Film Editor