Currently being sanctioned by the MPAA, Lars von Trier’s new film is certainly going to stir up controversy among audiences and critics. It is an audacious and deeply disturbing film with a career defining performance by Matt Dillon. The film walks the line of being a provocative and challenging work of high art and a stunt. “The House that Jack Built” is an unforgettable film that will haunt you and never let go. It is perhaps von Triers most bold and ambitious film to date that also holds the most complexity and scope.
The story of a pathological and sociopath mass murderer, is told with a mix of the Dogma 95 realism style, with unforgiving realism and details with some the typical von Trier twisted humor that will certainly generate a lot of angry debates upon screenings. The film will no doubt leave an imprint in cinematic history and I anticipate this film becoming a cult classic in years to come.
There will be no doubt that some viewers will find it demented while others will say it’s superb filmmaking. The MPAA which actually gave the film a R Rating, IFC is slapped with sanctions and possible fines for screening the unrated directors cut. I am curious what the R version has left out, while the film has disturbing moments, however the violence depicted in the film is nowhere near as explicit at other torture porn films we have been demoralized to as of late.
This is an unnerving film that will no doubt disturb and horrify audiences, and the film works on many levels. Very much a tour de force that explores the life and psychology of a serial killer named Jack, played to perfection by Matt Dillon. Jack’s killings to him are not a crime but rather a work of art that allows him to find the OCD meticulous detail that he relieves for.
On many levels the film echoes the 1990 independent thriller “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”. Both films actually get into the mind of the serial killer, and the killer is the main character as von Trier also types into the psyche of a mad killer. While “Henry” was also very bleak, it was also very disturbing, and the film ends with no real punishment on Henry. Without revealing the astonishing and mind-blowing finale of “The House that Jack Built”, the epilogue that is the final chapter in a 5 chapter saga allows an enthralling commentary on how sinister deeds will always catch up on the wicked and evil.
Also “Henry” does not employ humor the way von Trier does, in which the film offers a lot of dark comedic hilarity merged with plenty of anxiety and shock. Structured beautifully and brilliantly with vignettes called “incidents”, five in all that mainly have female victims, the depiction of the brutal murders and how they unfold by Jack is very much a film essay in the vein of a Jean-Luc Godard film.
An examination of the correlation of art and violence set to montage imagery through narration by Jack and Verge (Bruno Ganz) who serves as a therapist, and their debates are merged together with music and footage by Glenn Gould playing the piano, and we get a montage of images that include brutal murderous dictators like Mao ZeTong, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, and Hitler, William Blake’s poem on “The Lamb and The Tiger” that examines the primal nature of humanity. Lars von Trier even goes so far to even showing clips from his other films to show the connection how human suffering creates art.
While the film overall is sadistic, cruel, and graphic it isn’t the actual violence that disturbs, it’s actually the moments leading up to it that horrify the most. Take for instance a moment in the film where Jack murders a beautiful and insecure young woman that he calls “Simple” (Riley Keough). It is obvious that they have been dating a while, when one night Jack subjects Simple to insults and psychological torment and he ultimately mutilates her in a very disturbing matter.
Von Trier spends a numerous amount of time in the scene before killing her by degrading and humiliating her, and then winning her back by playing mind games and working on her own insecurities through emotional and psychological manipulation. Once Simple finds out that he truly is the serial killer that is labeled “Mr. Sophistication”, she begins to scream hopelessly in her apartment as Jack encourages, coaches, and even screams along with her to prove the hopelessness of our fellow mankind. The result and effect is deeply disturbing and equally distressing. In a way more than the violence that unfolds in the film, and in other films for that matter. It also shows von Trier truly has great empathy for humanity, which he always has had in his films that includes a unique and masterful filmography that includes such masterpieces as “Breaking the Waves”, “Dancer in the Dark”, “Dogville”, and “Melancholia”.
While Lars von Triers is often considered a misanthrope that holds disdains towards humanity, there is no denying his films are bleak, chilling, and deeply complex. There is also no denying that he brings great empathy for his characters complexities, insecurities, and internal suffering than most other filmmakers.
There is an uncompromising vision and execution to von Trier’s approach here to death, instead of trivializing death, the film shows the consequence of evil, and the finale does it quite well. While many will think the final epilogue is self-indulgent, I don’t look at it that way at all. The final segment and closing moments in the film explore how evil always has consequences, and the imagery is absolutely artful and haunting, in the tradition of a Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman films, even with a poetic image where Jack finally finds a depth of empathy and humanity when he looks through a spiritual window and sheds a tear of men cutting grass in Elysian fields with scythes.
This leads the viewer down a rewarding and unforgettable journey that is doing and saying a lot of things on many levels. The way Verge guides Jack in the final stretch of the film almost signifies this could be Lars von Trier’s last film. Whether it is von Trier’s last film or not, it ends as a brilliant farewell that holds both bleakness and an equal amount of artistic transcendence to a filmmaker that dares to take us on journey’s that many filmmakers dare not to go.