[Review] "The House that Jack Built" Director's Cut is a masterpiece built over a foundation of violence
We are officially in the midst of a horror renaissance period. I don’t believe that the genre is suddenly producing “elevated” horror films for the first time ever. The genre, like any other, has been giving us thoughtful masterpieces since its induction into culture. What is different now, however, is that more and more filmmakers seem to be striving for art over gore, substance over sex, and so on. The House that Jack Built is just the latest to join the ever-growing list of artistic marvels that have hit the screen this year…
…Written/directed by Lars von Trier (Antichrist), The House that Jack Built tells the story of Jack (Matt Dillon), a sophisticated killer who has been at the game for a long time, dubbing himself “Mr. Sophistication”. In a conversation with an unseen mystery person called Verge (Bruno Ganz), Jack recounts the five “incidents” which shaped him as a killer, and an artist.
Going against every notion of the MPAA, the buzz-killing scourge of the film world, The House that Jack Built played a DIRECTOR’S CUT of the film for one night only last night. A screening I simply had to attend. After all, the film had been whispered about all through festival circuits, split right down the middle amongst crowds, with some deeming it a revelation, and others calling it vile filth as they walked out the door trying to keep their lunch down. Maybe this is why the general public always views fans of the genre as uniquely depraved, but it was these rumors that convinced me to trudge through a mile of pouring rain to see this film. And let me tell you, I was not disappointed. Because I know this will likely not play before any theatrical screenings with the watered-down version of the film, I want to tell you that Dillon and von Trier welcomed the audience into Jack’s house with a recorded message that had Dillon asking the audience to please not leave during the movie, and von Trier voicing the same, while also denouncing Donald Trump. If you ask me, that’s quite an introduction.
For those that are walking into this film, there is something which must be understood. Von Trier doesn’t care what you think about his film. In fact, during the festival circuit, he was often quoted as saying he wants some people to hate his movie, because that’s how he knows he made something effective. And if you’re going into a von Trier film having never seen his work before, it’s important to know that. You’re either along for the ride or not. The House that Jack Built is not some run of the mill, jump scare sequel to brainless franchises like Annabelle. This is reading Edgar Allen Poe’s poetry by candlelight, all alone in the dungeon of an abandoned castle. You either want the experience, or you don’t, and if you don’t, you will not enjoy this movie.
The House that Jack Built is an incredibly challenging film for viewers. Von Trier is like a painter equipped with a blood-soaked brush. Paired with brilliant cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro, The House that Jack Built presents its audience with a constant barrage of queasy violence and breathtakingly bold cinematography that is reminiscent of the way in which Italian horror filmmaker Dario Argento presents death: As art. But while Argento highlighted the act in frames drenched with gorgeous colors, von Trier does so with inspired framing which captures the macabre, resting beauty which can be associated with something which is dead. Not everyone’s cup of tea, the idea is philosophical in nature. If art is the process of capturing a feeling in a single frame, then why can’t death also be art? It’s a concept which works as the foundation for von Trier’s killer, Jack.
Dillon is utterly captivating as our philosophical artist/serial murderer, Jack. Split into five chapters, Jack casually describes some of his greatest “works” and the influence of which they had on him. It’s Dillon’s calm restraint which makes him so terrifying. Jack could best be compared to Anthony Hopkins Hannibal Lecter, a frighteningly intelligent killer who must impress their doctors with their innate ability to never let their heart rate rise, even as they’re bashing someone’s face in. The difference is that Jack is actually relatable in one very specific way, which is what makes the film so damn disturbing: I get him. As an artist, I get it. I don’t want to, but I get the concept of working to reach your ceiling, your defining work, so while I don’t at all agree with Jack’s despicable actions, he has such a way in which he speaks and discusses his art, that the experience is quite profound.
As I mentioned before though, not everyone will appreciate Jack’s “art”. Sitting in the theater, it was like going through Willy Wonka’s factory as each new chapter unfolded and put forth a new line to be crossed. Every so often, I would see another person get up and walk out, unable to accept what they were seeing on screen. It’s an understandable reaction. The House that Jack Built doesn’t just challenge the audience, it actually TRIES to get them to want to walk out. Animal torture, abuse of women, the killing of children. It’s all there. There are no boundaries for von Trier and The House that Jack Built. The film is simply asking you to discover what YOUR boundaries are. It’s an epic journey through Hell on the level of Dante’s Inferno, and not everyone will make it out. Like all art, it’s the patience through adversity that makes the final product so rewarding.
For some, it will help that The House that Jack Built is shockingly funny. Actually, it’s downright hysterical. Perhaps it’s a reflection on how desensitized audiences have become towards violence, but von Trier works hard at allowing his audience to breathe. On numerous occasions, we are treated to a bit of humor, such as Jack’s crippling OCD which has him imagining blood left everywhere in the house of his recent victim, calling him back over and over again to double check it is in fact clean. Dillon has a wonderfully endearing, awkward chemistry with his victims, leading towards plenty of opportunity for hysterical dialogue made funnier by the fact that Jack has no idea that what he is saying is completely unnatural.
The House that Jack Built works not just as a study of the mind of a serial killer, but as a commentary on humanity as a whole. The film often treats everyone around Jack, men, women, kids, cops, as complete idiots ignorant of the danger which he poses. There is also stark commentary on the lack of empathy amongst human beings. Jack often allows chances to point out to his victims that no one cares about their screams, and no one is coming to save them. We might laugh at the way in which these scenes are portrayed, but it’s really Jack who is laughing at us, because it’s our own lack of empathy, replaced by an appreciation for Jack’s art, that allows him to walk so easily amongst us, a tiger hunting lamb.
Watching The House that Jack Built is like listening to Beethoven construct the “Moonlight Sonata”. It’s filet mignon at the most expensive restaurant in New York. Von Trier has once again proven that he is, through and through, an artist who will never crumble at the demands of studios, and will always strive to presents his fans with an uncompromising vision, even if it causes some terrible backlash with the MPAA. Film classes will be, or at least should be, studying The House that Jack Built for years to come. Even as I type this, I cannot wait for another opportunity to study the delicate framing and intricately devised script. Most of you are probably going to hate this film for its brutality. But if you can get away from what’s on screen, and focus on the why of it all, you’ll be in for a mind-shattering treat which will have you up at night wondering what it all meant. At the very least, the film will remind you what you should already know…you just can’t trust Matt Dillon.
By Matt Konopka