The House That Jack Built,” featuring a refrain of David Bowie's "Fame" periodically slam-dunking itself into the narrative, the music eliciting more shock when it hard cuts at full volume than any of the onscreen bloodshed, is a damning offense. How dare you bring Bowie into this, Lars von Trier, the easily-detestable writer-director of this provocative serial killer drama that has — since its world premiere at the 71st annual Cannes Film Festival in 2018, where walkouts and booing were extremely prevalent — sent a concussive shockwave through the film community because of its extreme violence, cynical aberrations and imperious exploration of hell and art.
Naturally, it is all well and good to fashion a two-and-a-half-hour film studying the arc of a serial killer, but things only begin to unravel when von Trier literally transposes the film into an odyssey by miming Dante's “Inferno,” a part of the larger narrative poem, “The Divine Comedy,” where Dante, accompanied by the poet Virgil, journeys through heaven, purgatory and hell.
The late Bruno Ganz fills in for the role as a pathfinding Virgil, while the titular Jack, played admirably by Matt Dillon, discusses five, randomly chosen murder "incidents" he orchestrated. During the years he spends as a serial killer, failed-architect Jack is also trying to build the perfect lakeside house for himself, but he repeatedly dismantles the half-built houses after deeming the materials and methods unsuitable. However, once the eponymous house that Jack built is finalized, one can see he had found the correct “materials.” The details of these building materials, as I hope will be the case for the film entire, will remain left to the imagination.
Throughout Jack’s occupation of murder and architecture, the film is narrated with epistemological discussions on art, architecture, life, death, compulsive disorders, child murder and taxidermy, duck torture, farmwork, lamp posts and shadows, among other ostentatious things, while walking through some indeterminate void, later in the film realized into hell itself. My own hell consists of, at a certain juncture in the film, watching clips from von Trier's previous films play out in montage as he/Jack ruminates on art, iconography and suffering. It’s all as ludicrous as it sounds.
The first incident is mindless von Trier didacticism where we find a roadside damsel-in-distress in actress Uma Thurman — sporting a broken carjack. However, shortly before her carjack violently and repeatedly connects with her face, she quickly clarifies he would be too much of a "wimp" to be one, which then acts as an apparent catalyst for Jack’s moonlighting — and sunlighting in certain cases — as a serial killer.
Interestingly, despite its barbarity, the film can often be funny, though unfortunately, it's hard to laugh when your eyes are rolling at the same time. The second murderous incident is perhaps the most rewarding, with it being the most darkly humorous, when it finds Jack — after having a rough time of it with strangulation techniques — repeatedly leaves and reenters the crime scene thinking he's missed a spot of spilled blood. He is Mr. Clean at first before he takes the self-appointed moniker of Mr. Sophistication since his tidiness keeps his identity hidden from the authorities. The third incident is simply vile, involving the murder of two children along with their mother, and likewise is the fourth, and once the fifth incident arrives, I've entirely become victim to the machinations of a madman director.
This is my second von Trier film following his doomsday, depression study with “Melancholia,” which I quite liked — as antithetical that sentiment would appear to be given my own current endeavor to take the film on my own guided journey through hell, a hell consisting of scolding text that in all summarizes how much it blows.
I've had a passing familiarity with the rest of von Trier’s work over the years. His seemingly recurrent proclivity to deal in the very nasty and cynical, the boorishness behind his ostensible acquaintanceship with the zone beyond his external anal sphincter, his historically asinine comments on Hitler during a previous Cannes press conference, and in his musings on art — which gets an update here in the guise of Thurman's battered face dissolving into a Picasso painting.
Von Trier has long been known as the chief provocateur among contemporary filmmakers, seemingly taking pride in his work eliciting walkouts and critical derision, but I never found myself wanting to lay on a full-scale slaughter of this film. The wisecracking in this review should suggest as much, as I'm mostly impartial to this whole affair. The film can curiously be seen as somewhat autobiographical, a perverse correlative to von Trier's own career as one who — with each of his own films, incidents — rattles some cages and subjects his audience to murderous audio and visuals. I’m neither offended nor rattled, just unresponsive, but there are many that will certainly take offense.
Even the cinematographer for the film, Manuel Alberto Claro, seems to be phoning it in by taking inspiration from the mockumentary style of “The Office,” which may be an intention, to heighten both the comedy and rawness of it, but it is still mostly ugly in the end. The film gets high marks, on a pure visual splendor standpoint, for some of the ghoulish imagery found in the epilogue where hellish walls ooze blood and in the descent down a wall of blackened, mangled corpses.
Grisly happenings are to be seen here, but along with my joshing of von Trier, I'm more seeing the creation of this film as a young kid laying waste to a tower of building blocks, picking his nose, taking his nasal findings to use as the film's points and themes, and laughing at the calamity he has created as he goes.
This is a film occupied by two madmen, one a serial killer, and one a film director.