There’s a bit of inherent masochism in being a Lars Von Trier fan. One knows before even sitting down in the theater or pushing play on the Bluray player that they’re about to be crushed, devastated, disturbed (possibly for life), yet we keep coming back. My first personal experience with Von Trier’s work was with his adaptation of Euripides’ classic Greek tragedy Medea. Medea. It’s already..tragic enough, inherently, yet Von Trier is able to get the most devastating performance out of Kirsten Olesen in the titular role. It’s something I will never forget.
This ability to conjure raw, real, and brutal performances from a wide variety of actors, plus his visionary filming style that influenced an entire movement known as Dogme 95, cements him as one of the most influential cutting-edge filmmakers of the 20th century. Going into the 21st, he began to become increasingly more daring, with such mesmerizing opuses as Melancholia, which in my mind showcases Kirsten Dunst’s best all-time performance in a film, and the infamous yet brilliant Antichrist and Nymphomaniac, which showed us Charlotte Gainsbourg’s strength and range as a talented actress.
I’m always extremely excited when a new Von Trier film is released. When I heard about The House That Jack Built, and particularly it’s wildly divisive Cannes screening, I was on the edge of my seat the entire year, waiting for the opportunity to see what the fuss was about. Everyone who pays attention to the world of cinema knows that Von Trier’s films will be shocking and disturbing, it’s pretty much par for the course, but hearing that half the crowd walked out and the other half gave a standing ovation was music to my ears.
“Jack wants to tell Virg the tale of his storied career, as both an architect, and a killer…”
Something else that made me want to see this film the first possible moment I could be the inclusion of its lead, Matt Dillon. I have been a fan of Matt Dillon since I was a little kid. He’s such an iconic performer. When I was a teenager, my love for William S. Burroughs led me to see the legendary Gus Van Sant film, Drugstore Cowboy. Matt Dillon’s performance as a junkie trying to make good is one of my all time favorites from any actor. Dillon also has a great range. He can be unbelievably hilarious one second, and utterly terrifying the next. Finding out that he, along with Uma Thurman, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Jeremy Davies, Riley Keough, and the one and only Bruno Ganz were all going to be in a movie about a serial killer was almost too much for me to handle.
It sounds weird and maybe insulting, but I immediately thought that Matt Dillon would be an amazing serial killer. He has a way of conveying charming brutality that only a few other actors can. However, once you see The House That Jack Built, it’s impossible to conceive of anyone other than Matt Dillon playing the role. I have to say that this is now his best performance to date.
Jack is an engineer who’s always wanted to be an architect. He has severe OCD and no real friends to speak of unless you count some mechanics and hunting buddies that he talks to in passing.
At the outset of the film, we hear Dillon’s voice and the voice of a guy named “Virg” (Bruno Ganz, who is also a legend in my mind). Jack wants to tell Virg the tale of his storied career, as both an architect, and a killer. However, Jack doesn’t consider his killings to really be anything too negative. It’s simply an art, a way for him to express himself.
Something I didn’t necessarily expect but should have because it’s Von Trier was the degree of philosophical discussion about the nature of man, art and artist, and man’s relation to the world around him. It’s not simply a slasher film. The violence, which there is plenty of, is actually somewhat incidental to what Jack, and in essence, Von Trier, is actually trying to achieve.
“…quite a few scenes in this film that will haunt you, possibly forever.”
Beginning with the amazing Dancer In The Dark, Von Trier uses his films to make huge metaphorical indictments against American culture and our overall way of life. This, of course, doesn’t sit well with everybody, but that’s what makes Von Trier who he is. The House That Jack Built picks up that momentum and shows us the faults in the general attitude of “The American Man”. Jack is essentially an embodiment of toxic masculinity and stereotypical American machismo to the nth degree.
What’s great and honestly hilarious is that Jack is also a version of Von Trier himself, since Jack considers himself first and foremost to be an artist. There are many times in the film where Von Trier makes fun of himself and what the world thinks about him. In one particularly pointed example, Virg asks Jack, “Do you think all women are stupid?” which is about as direct of an acknowledgment to criticisms made against his work as you can get.
Let’s get down to brass tacks here. There are quite a few scenes in this film that will haunt you, possibly forever. Particularly one incident involving taxidermy that will stay with me for the rest of my life. You’ll also never think of hunting deer or family picnics the same way again. There’s also a strange addition of certain parts of a world famous poem that I’d be sorely remiss in revealing here, but oddly enough it all works, in my opinion. Some people, including a couple of people I watched the film with, may see The House That Jack Built as pretentious nonsense. Others will see it as the glorification of violence. I see it for what it was intended to be, a work of complicated, violent, hilarious art.
The House That Jack Built (2018) Written and Directed by Lars Von Trier. Starring Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Riley Keough, Jeremy Davies.
10 out of 10 Houses