Trier wants you to love it. He wants you to hate it. He wants you to walk out. He wants you to smother it with messages with absolute admiration
There is an art to being divisive, and Lars von Trier is the director of choice to produce a film looking to be as divisive as possible. Trier wants you to love it. He wants you to hate it. He wants you to walk out. He wants you to smother it with messages with absolute admiration. But behind The House That Jack Built’s horrifying outer shell, what is it actually trying to say? And is it even worth evoking any reaction of such extremism?
Speaking to an unseen voice, Jack (Matt Dillon) is a serial killer with a story to tell. As he recounts a series of ‘incidents’ to the unknown man, Jack’s deranged view of life comes across as a multitude of confused emotions and actions, detailing how complicated the mind of a serial killer can be. Jack’s murderous nature is enhanced by his intense urges, caused by his obsessive compulsive disorder and his love of architecture and engineering.
The House That Jack Built is a film about the opening of a mind and the subsequent analysis of how it works, by the audience. It’s an open plan view of what a serial killer’s mind runs through, normalising his actions. Lars von Trier’s work is both worrying and smart, as it purposefully and easily provokes a reaction of anger and distaste. It’s actual imagery, bar the scene with the children, isn’t overly ridiculous when it’s compared to a wider range of modern horrors. Cinema has reached a point where very little is stopped from reaching the big screen, and that makes it increasingly difficult to effect in the ways horror’s used to be able to. The House That Jack Built isn’t as extreme as audiences would perhaps have it made out to be (especially that pesky Cannes lot).
Yet, it is still sickening. When taken out of the context of the film, the idea of murdering children is hideous, and that’s what the film tries to play on. Jack is a man of unrelenting terror, but by analysing his mind, von Trier wants to push ideas that maybe he isn’t so crazy. He obviously is, but this is where the divisiveness comes from. Normalising murder to such an extent is both ridiculous and uncalled for. It’s part of a provocation that von Trier loves to stir up at any given chance.
However, Jack as a character, doesn’t work. For all of Matt Dillon’s wonderful work on the film, the initial set up of his characterisation is too fluctuating and too inconsistent. His OCD presents itself inconsistently, and with a story that jumps frequently and constantly, it’s tough to keep up with his habits and his current state of mind. Jack is an unreliable character in a film where his reliability is posed as an asset to his killing. It doesn’t work, and stops the character piece from being a proper character piece.
The House That Jack Built has absolutely served its purpose as an agitator and a firebrand, becoming to the public everything von Trier wanted it to be. But in reality, it’s a stupendously long feature with some good notes on the meaning to life, but little more. It’s third act is however fascinating, both cinematically and contextually, saving it from somewhat from a putrid death.
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