In what was a violation of MPAA – the group that determines movie ratings for America – rules, theaters across the country screened a director’s unrated cut for provocateur auteur Lars Von Trier’s The House That Jack Built. Of course, I had to attend. Of course, the movie ended up being as grotesque and unsettling as advertised. What was unexpected, however, was Von Trier’s video introduction before the film. Shaking with anxiety, he said, “Never another Trump.” Through all of the blood and mutilations, all of the serial murder antics, my thoughts were stuck on that final statement from before the beginning of the presentation. Knowing I was breaking some old-fashioned rating council rule was exciting, but knowing I may be watching a political statement was intriguing.
As fleeting as it was, I still felt it.
The House That Jack Built tells the tale, as told by Jack himself to a bemused but annoyed “Virg”il, of specific, but seemingly random incidents of brutal murder, with occasional long-winded anecdotes and explanations using historical and philosophical precedence. The incidents vary in tone, from flat-out awkward behavioral comedy to flat-out uncaring violence, but are always precise and bold, both in what is being captured and how. Von Trier takes the inevitable trip down the road from Hitchcock’s Frenzy – which featured a particularly gruesome strangulation or two, with a humor about most of it – but differs in how fast he drives to get there. From start to finish, Von Trier is pressing the gas pedal hard, zooming by stylistically with various choices of shot composition (sometimes like The Office, other times like a painting) but without many tonal or perspective changes. It’s wild, but not really all over the place. It’s a confident film, assured in what and how it is. And yet, there’s much to be offended by.
My showing had a few walk-outs, but not nearly as many as at this year’s Cannes Festival. Here, Matt Dillon plays Jack with charismatic coldness, being superficially likable but completely disgusting in practice of beliefs, or non-beliefs, really. Dillon is a vessel for Von Trier’s feelings on an indifferent world, one filled with pain and evil, without much or any consequence. It’s a depressing view, to be sure, but Von Trier is a depressing guy, and so it goes. His natural persona of a too cool for school kinda guy (as played in movies like Wild Things) is on display here, but with the added nuance and definition of a true socio-psychopath-narcissist. Had things gone differently for the character of Jack, he might’ve become Henry Chinasky from Factotum. It really isn’t a stretch for Dillon’s personality, but a challenge for anyone identifying as not a monster. Or rather, as anyone not wanting to identify as a monster.
If Lars Von Trier were to make a toilet humor/dick and fart joke farce, The House That Jack Built would be it. This conceit alone is disturbing but goes farther with its content of frozen bodies, child killings, on purpose hijinks around fresh corpses, and the killer’s OCD tendencies played up for layered but ultimately horrific laughs. I chuckled once or twice, shocking myself at the film’s effectiveness to get that response out of me with the specific context presented. Yes, it’s meant to provoke and to push buttons, yes it questions many notions on art and life, but did it have to go where it goes? I suppose the answer is yes, and damn me for entertaining otherwise. Still, it’s a repulsive affair, perhaps a shade better than the terrifying (and pretentious) A Serbian Film. You may want to watch this again, you may think about it for days on end, but it doesn’t change how ugly things get.
Does that make for a bad movie? No. A queasy watch? Yes. Von Trier is a master craftsman, one that college-era me would’ve adored so much. What saves The House That Jack Built from diving too deeply into unforgiving territory is, ironically, its framing device and the journey we’re ultimately on with Jack. Not to spoil anything, but a message that suggests we’re in charge of our own fate goes from negative to positive with the flip of a switch. “Virg”il and Jack’s debate reaches the conclusion of surface level compromise while winking at us that Jack is full of s**t. It’s not cathartic, but it’s something.
And of Trump? Well, he’s full of s**t for sure. Not nearly as articulate, but just as self-justifiably entitled. If he had the patience to watch this film, you can guess correctly who’d he identify “bigly” with. The only difference is that the house he built is white. Like, really white. Supremely white.
Again, Trump is a passing fancy for this film, fleeting but felt.
RATING: 3 / 5
The House That Jack Built comes back to New Orleans this December in an R Rated version.