Review / Analysis: The House That Jack Built [2018]; Lars von Trier Speaks to Me

a review by the Crow.

Note: Following considerable deliberation, the Azure-Winged Magpie and I have decided to review
TheHouseThatJackBuilt independently, contrary to her original announcement. The reason for this decision will be made clear in her review of the movie (due out next year).

That said,

The Corvid Review - SNFW notice

This is a Lars von Trier movie, after all.

Tʜᴇ Rᴇᴠɪᴇᴡ Tʜᴀᴛ ʜᴇ Cʀᴏᴡ Wʀᴏᴛᴇ —

WARNING: This section contains MINOR spoilers.

I must confess something.

Some six years ago, I wrote a novella in secret. It was intended for a very specific purpose which went unfulfilled, in the end. That novella has not seen — and likely will never see — the light of day. Only four people in the world — myself included — have ever read any of it. At its climactic moment, the ideas of art and death were tied together — in quite literal sense, and in a way I felt spoke to a “higher purpose”. And anyone who’s watched the very tongue-in-cheek trailer for The House That Jack Built, or is familiar with the works of Lars von Trier, will know why I have brought this unrealised project up.

But that’s not all.

Lars von Trier’s latest offering also involves nods to certain works of literature, the word “Katabasis”, with a literal display of the act, and aviation. And these are just a few of the things that tie this work of his to me — as presumptuous as that might sound.

That’s why I — funnily enough — find Mr von Trier speaking to me through this work of his, to some degree. Only our roles are not what they should be at a first glance. Here, I’m Verge. And Lars von Trier is Jack.

And who are these characters? They are the two men who are conversing over the dark screen that the movie opens on. Verge (Bruno Ganz — who I will always fondly remember from Nosferatu The Vampyr) is apparently taking Jack (Matt Dillon) somewhere, and it’s their conversation “along the way” that makes up the main body of the story. Their coversation is broken into five “incidents” which then make up most of the visual content of the movie.

Jack is a serial killer, and his incidents revolve around murders Jack has committed. The first is a quite muted affair, with Jack effectively being goaded into murdering a woman; Lady 1 (Uma Thurman — who for some reason she strikes me as looking very un-Uma-Thurman-like in this movie). The following incidents are much more interesting, presenting a very grounded and quite varied look at Jack’s “career”.

The incidents are spread out over a twelve-year period, and run concurrent to Jack’s attempts to build a house — which he does achieve, after a fashion, at the climax of the movie. And that’s really all there is to the story — as broken into events.

In the course of the conversation between Jack and Verge — that picks up around the end of the fifth incident — we are offered a portrait of psychopathy; which, contrary to popular belief, is not a true diagnosis. Now, I know (or more correctly: knew) a very small collection of people who qualify as being psychopaths (one rather too well, unfortunately). In light of my experience with these people, I have to commend The House That Jack Built as a brilliant work on that one point. It does show a psychopath’s mind as I’ve come to understand it. Not only is Matt Dillon spectacular in the role of Jack, but the way in which the actor handles the dialogue (as understated as it is) drives home the “super-sanity” a psychopath would have.

I’m of the opinion that no two psychopaths are truly alike, so I’m dealing with Jack as an isolated case. However, his mannerisms regarding the “justification” for his actions (of course, at no point does he care about whether what he’s doing is right or wrong) is something I’m familiar with. This is rhetoric that picked at my ears, and I can see where Jack’s coming from, if that makes sense to you. I’ve always found people with “broken minds” (specifically talking about psycopathy or other disorders that might lead to harm, here) interesting, and have always had an affinity to people of the like (which would explain some of my closer friends…). The ability to follow the course a broken mind takes is something I’ve always held in high regard. And while one’s interest never has to translate to “support”, it’s never short of interesting to view how these characters piece the world around them together.

And Jack — by extension Lars von Trier — qualifies as a most interesting one.

Make no mistake: this is Mr von Trier exploring his own mind. I’m not saying that Mr von Trier has a walk-in freezer somewhere that he’s stuffed full of bodies (although, now that I think about it…), but this is him talking about violence and what makes it “evil” (or not), amongst other things. It’s something I’ve done myself, as I stated earlier.

I have no real affinity for Mr von Trier. While the man is capable of visual magic, I’ve found him to be a director who manages to undermine his own work with startling regularity. And here, he stops just short of doing so. Is this his best work? I don’t know. I’ve only seen a small selection of his work. And between the few I’ve watched, I liked Breaking the Waves best, and despised Antichrist. In summary: I don’t have enough experience with the man and his work to say much.

But I like The House That Jack Built. It’s not a brilliant movie by any stretch of the definition, but it’s a good one. Above-average, I suppose, is the best way to put it. It’s shot excellently (an avenue in which Mr von Trier has never had a problem in), composed brilliantly, and works as a great work on technical merit, but rings a little hollow when it comes to content.

–as is usual.

There are sprawling “philosophical” yarns. These, I believe are Mr von Trier showing off his “deep thoughts” on personhood, identity, people, violence, and so on and so forth. This is where the movie could have shined… and it’s schoolboy stuff. I’m not impressed.

If one thinks they’re in for a great treatise on how a broken mind views humanity, you’ll get that. What von Trier is going for is a collection of thoughts we’ve all had, but takes them and runs with them to the finish-line. I suspect he’s trying to evoke a sense of realisation in the viewer — a moment of: “Oh, I’ve done that before.” — and thrown the end-product that might result from these thoughts at us in what passes as humour in his mind. But it doesn’t really work.

In light of the controversy surrounding Mr von Trier and the Cannes Film Festival from 2011 (a train of loose — and ill-chosen — thought which I’m of the opinion he was a little badgered into following his own realisation at how horribly he’d fucked up, made additionally hilarious by actress Kirsten Dunst’s visible reaction to the moment: “Stop!”), I felt his inculsion of Albert Speer and the man’s works was pushing his luck a little. It’s very obviously shoved in, no matter how much he likes the guy.

The inclusion of the Junkers JU 87 “Stuka”, on the other hand, I quite liked — for obvious reasons (they used to make good target practice for aircraft powered by the time’s “perfection itself“, too). The dialogue regarding it, however, is a little tame. Nothing special to see or hear.

All that said, however, I feel that the fuss surrounding the movie’s release was a little out-of-proportion. It’s not that edgy. It barely has an edge, to be honest. There are much more twisted works that haven’t received this sort of attention, but would have warranted such, given how this movie’s been dealt with.

Ultimately, while I don’t myself know the man, I don’t think I like Mr von Trier — especially as he presents “himself” in The House That Jack Built. And there’s a line in the movie — spoken by Verge, to Jack — which would sum up my response to the man if this were not a review, but rather a conversation between us. And I suppose that’s a compliment, in a funny way. I don’t see him taking my reaction to him as a person as anything but a compliment. I’m not directly addressing the issue involving Bjork, here, but it must be kept in mind. I can fully see Mr von Trier doing what she has said this “Danish director” has done, but I wouldn’t like to use the allegations/actions as a point in this review.

I’m speaking solely of the discourse in this movie. Again: it’s schoolboy-level, and just underwhelming. It’s still a “fine little” movie, but it contains just too much self-fellation for me to take it any more seriously. Maybe, if he were able to disconnect his struggles with his own sense of self, he might produce works with more intellectual weight to them. But that’s a hopeful look, I’d say. I don’t think the man is capable of that. I’ve derided him on a certain point before, and I expect him to do the exact opposite of what I’ve said he should do — if enough people say so to him.
After all, he’s just that kind of guy.

Once Jack puts on S.P. (David Bailie)’s bathrobe, the movie undergoes a tonal shift, and it’s well-executed. I liked the sequences “down under” — even the bizarre La Barque de Dante scene (show below, and on the banner image) that’s just… there in the movie.

The final decision Jack takes fits right in with his character, and shouldn’t come as a surprise. With it, the ending makes sense, as much as there can be an ending to a movie such as this.

As you can probably tell, I’m struggling to put a number on The House That Jack Built. One the one hand, I like it, and Matt Dillon is amazing. On the other hand, I find it over-done and too full of itself. I still like it, but I just don’t feel it’s an important piece of work. It showcases psychopathy well, and yet, it’s very amateur-hour. It has a solid backbone, but fails to do anything special with it. However, it’s not middling. All the performances are solid, and I was particularly happy to see Forbrydelsen‘s Sofie Gråbøl appear (as Lady 3). A minor annoyance I would’ve had is the movie’s slight undertainty about whether or not Jack is right-or-left handed; if not for the fact that the few I know who count as psychopaths are all ambidextrous (a skill I myself have, to a certain degree) and hide it — which is a fact research leans towards as well.

Lars von Trier is as smug as he has been since the incident in 2011, and a part of me does want to put him on the ground and slap him around the head a little. But it was a decent conversation, nonetheless. I learnt something about Mr von Trier, and it involves something I’ve myself attempted, so we had some common ground that we could wander around in whilst talking.

I do get where he’s coming from, and what he’s trying to do. Like I said: I have patience for minds like these — no matter how dire their thoughts can turn. And it has been a fascinating two-and-a-half hours we spent together, no matter how immature things might have gotten.

It’d just help if he wasn’t so full of himself.
It’s at this point that I’ll leave him — to try and scale his way around to the other side of the bridge he faces.

–Crow out.


Fɪɴᴀʟ Rᴀᴛɪɴɢs —

ᴛʜᴇ Cʀᴏᴡ: 6/10 —
ᴛʜᴇ Aᴢᴜʀᴇ-Wɪɴɢᴇᴅ Mᴀɢᴘɪᴇ: ᴛʙᴅ/10 —


Here’s one of the movie’s official posters:

2 thoughts on “Review / Analysis: The House That Jack Built [2018]; Lars von Trier Speaks to Me”

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