Scalding Hot Takes: The House That Jack Built
Lars Von Trier is a lovable scamp I will always associate with my brief eighteen year stint as a film critic for The A.V Club and then The Dissolve. When I made my living as a full-time film critic I was obligated to see at least most of Von Trier’s films and have an opinion about them. I will particularly always associate the controversial provocateur with what will undoubtedly be my final visit to Sundance.
I can still vividly recall the excitement I experienced snagging a much sought-ofter ticket for a midnight mystery screening of a big new film from a major director. The buzz was that it was the first volume of Nymphomaniac, Von Trier’s massive, two-part magnum opus all about fucking. And sex. And spirituality. And excess as the path to transcendence And what Von Trier’s movies are always about.
It was, as you might imagine, pretty damn close to the perfect way to experience a movie like that: with a packed crowd quivering with excitement at getting an early glimpse at a movie that mattered, that was important, that people would be talking about for years, even decades to come. This was cinephile nirvana, moviegoing bliss, a transcendent cinematic experience.
I dug the first half of Nymphomaniac. It was ribald and naughty, crazily excessive and, more than anything, wildly funny in that inimitable Lars Von Trier fashion though I felt little to no need to see the second part of Nymphomaniac. 145 minutes in this world was more than enough for me.
Cut to six and half years later. I haven’t been a film critic for three and a half years. Sundance is an increasingly fuzzy memory and I’m only watching and writing about new movies for my podcast and, to a much lesser extent, the Scalding Hot Takes feature here on the website.
Usually my body is as finely tuned and powerful as a Maserati that runs on Mountain Dew, marijuana, vodka and junk food but this last week my high-performance engine of a flabby, out of shape body broke down. I got a nasty cold that had me operating at 60 percent capacity at best.
My wife likes watching movies and television shows about horrible crimes being committed by and against sociopathic monsters and our four year old was at his grandparents for the night so our Friday night date consisted of sitting on our couch and watching The House That Jack Built on Amazon Prime. My wife made it about forty minutes into the film before she followed in the paths of over a hundred audience members at the movie’s Cannes premiere and walked out. Then again, The House That Jack Built also enjoyed a ten minute standing ovation at Cannes that I can only assume was bitingly sarcastic.
So I was really not in the best possible headspace to spend one hundred and fifty minutes having my foggy brain plunged into a rancid sewer of graphic violence, nihilism and ugliness of every conceivable sort. If watching Nymphomaniac made me excited to love movies and write about them for a living, The House That Jack Built proved a tedious chore I suffered through solely out of a sense of professional obligation.
Like the infinitely superior Nymphomaniac, the framing device of The House That Jack Built finds a taboo-shattering protagonist whose obsessions and dark desires lead them to disregard society’s laws and limits sharing their life experiences with someone simultaneously horrified by, and fascinated with, the extreme nature of their transgressions.
In Nymphomaniac, the taboo-shattering protagonist was the titular sex-enjoyer played by Charlotte Gainsbourg as an adult and Stacy Martin as a young woman. In The House That Jack Built the taboo-shattering protagonist is Jack, a prolific serial killer played by Matt Dillon and the outsider simultaneously horrified by, and fascinated with, the extreme nature of their transgressions is a mysterious figure known only as Verge played by Bruno Ganz of Downfall meme fame.
Some might say that “Verge” is a nod to Vergel and his role as hell’s guide in Dante’s Inferno. I call bullshit. “Verge” is obviously a reference to “Vern”, the unseen figure Ernest P. Worrell was forever communicating with in his television show and commercials. And Jack is clearly an Ernest P. Worrell surrogate. Rumor has it the original title of The House That Jack Built was Ernest Goes To Hell but they couldn’t get Jim Varney’s estate to sign off on such a dark project.
Jack, you see, fancies himself something of an artist. Only instead of working with pastels or watercolors Jack works with the bodies of the dozens of people he murders. He’s a bit of a sick twist, that Jack, in that he’s a remorseless sociopath incapable of empathy, compassion or seemingly any other positive human trait beyond intelligence.
Jack, it seems, represents something even worse than a prolific serial killer who thinks nothing of slaughtering woman and children as part of some ongoing performance art piece only he seems to understand. Jack is yet another serial killer with a philosophy, the kind of blabbermouth who will talk your damn ear off before slicing it off to keep as a trophy.
Jack spends a lot of The House That Jack Built discoursing drily and academically about any number of subjects, from the hauntingly symbolic manner in which damaged and dying grapes are used in wine production to the economical way Nazis executed multiple prisoners with a single over-achieving bullet. Is this an insultingly pretentious slasher movie, Jason Goes To Graduate School, And Then Hell, or a goddamn Ted Talk from a dude whose only joy in life comes from turning the living into the dead?
To really hammer home the murder-as-art conceit for all the mouth-breathing dummies in the audience, Von Trier will cut regularly to clips of Glenn Gould playing piano or Jack imitating Bob Dylan in the D.A Pennebaker-shot promo for “Subterranean Homesick Blues” as he tosses out cards alluding to his crimes and madness. Yes, in The House That Jack Built borrows the same conceit as American pop parodist “Weird Al” Yankovic when he made “Bob” a shot by shot tribute to Dylan’s iconic bit of pop Americana. Al did it better.
If Jack is a murder artist, he’s a pretty shitty one. Sure, no one can doubt his enthusiasm and passion for killing. The kid was born to stab and strangle and shoot and off as many people as possible. But when it comes to the skills required to be a top-notch murderer, he just doesn’t have it. Jack is a very bad, very obvious liar. He comes off as creepy as hell. Killing is his life, man, but he’s simply not very good at killing.
Here’s the thing: Jack doesn’t get away with killing dozens of people because he’s a criminal genius as skilled at murder as Glenn Gould was at playing the piano. No, Jack gets away with murder over and over again in sloppy, obvious and easily solved ways because the universe is an ugly, corrupt, heartless and unfeeling place that does not care if innocent are slaughtered by the wicked.
The House That Jack Built takes the form of five vignettes of murder ostensibly chosen at random by Jack to help illustrate how he has lived his bloody, nihilistic philosophy through killings that began with the hastily improvised slaying of a stranger played by Nymphomaniac veteran Uma Thurman and increase in brutality and ambition until he’s trying to top that Human Centipede gent with a “house” made up entirely of brutally murdered corpses. I don’t want to be overly critical but can a “house” made up exclusively of dead bodies ever truly be considered a “home?” I think not. A makeshift structure made up of human flesh by definition will not be a welcoming, inviting showplace.
After putting audiences and Jack’s victims through Hell for one hundred and thirty perversely dry, shapeless, interminable minutes, Von Trier once again makes things grindingly literal by ending with Jack in Hell along with his guide Verge.
The tricky thing about Von Trier is that he’s such a sadistic, manipulative game player that he could plausibly posit just about any fault in his films as intentional. It consequently seems weirdly plausible that Von Trier made an intentionally dry, dull film about a ridiculously unconvincing murderer who is deliberately bad at what he appears to see as his sacred calling.
Humor is an oft-overlooked element of Von Trier’s aesthetic. You can get away with a lot when you make people laugh. I laughed like a maniac at Nymphomaniac and sat stoned faced and annoyed at The House That Jack Built. There’s simply no release or escape from all that bloody drudgery. This feels like a great artist operating on fumes, reduced, at last, to joyless, lifeless self-parody.
Going into The House That Jack Built I was of the mindset that whether you love him or hate him, you cannot deny the power, intensity, relevance and uniqueness of Von Trier and his uncompromising, audacious aesthetic. Brother, I have no problem denying the holy living fuck out of The House That Jack Built. It commits the most egregious and unforgivable crime in Von Trier’s world: it’s fucking boring, an endless slog through darkness that elucidates nothing beyond a profound, aching emptiness in its creator’s soul.
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