The other night, I watched 2018’s The House That Jack Built on Showtime and I have to say that, sitting here the morning afterwards, I kind of wish that I hadn’t. It’s a well-made film and there’s a bit more going on underneath the surface that some other reviews might lead you to suspect but, at the same time, it’s also deeply unsettling and, even by the standards of Lars von Trier, disturbing. It’s not a film to watch right before you go to bed, nor is it a film to watch at the beginning of a long week. I’m still feeling the after effects of having watched this movie and I imagine I’ll probably be jumpy for the next few days.
The title character, Jack (Matt Dillon), is someone who loves to talk about himself. He’s an engineer but he wishes he was an architect. He thinks of himself as being an artist and an intellectual and he has no hesitation about informing you that he’s smarter than just about everyone else on the planet. He’s annoyed that he’s not better-known. He feels that his work is underappreciated.
The House that Jack Built runs two and a half hours and, as a result, we spent a lot of time listening to Jack talk. One thing that quickly becomes apparent is that Jack knows a lot but he understand very little. He spends a lot of time talking about Glenn Gould, Goethe, and Nazi architecture but his thoughts on them are rather shallow and predictable. When we see flashbacks to Jack’s youth, we don’t see any signs of the intelligence that he claims to possess as an adult. Instead, we just see a scowling country boy who used to abuse animals. Jack may insist on calling himself “Mr. Sophistication” but there’s really nothing sophisticated about him and one gets the feeling that his faux intellectualism is something that he developed to justify the fact that he’s a sociopath and a serial killer. Jack claims to have murdered at least 60 people and he also says that each murder was a work of art. If art reflects the time and place in which it was made than how can we condemn Jack for reflecting the soullessness and cruelty of the real world in his own creations? The answer, of course, is that we can very easily condemn Jack. Jack uses the state of the world to justify his actions but that doesn’t mean we have to buy what he’s selling.
The House That Jack Built is built around a lengthy conversation between Jack and an enigmatic character named Verge (Bruno Ganz). Jack shows Verge the “five incidents” that, over the course of 12 years, have defined who Jack is as a person and a serial killer. The five incidents feature Jack killing everyone from a stranded motorist (Uma Thurman) and a grieving widow (Siobhan Fallon Hogan) to a terrified mother and her two sons. Jack has a brief and toxic relationship with one of his victims (heart-breakingly played by Riley Keough) and it leads to an act of violence that’s so disturbing that I don’t even want to relive it long enough to write about it. Throughout it all, Jack tries to justify himself while Verge continually calls him out on his bullshit. Watching the film, I found myself very thankful for Verge. The film would have been unbearable if it has just been Jack bragging on himself, unchallenged. Verge not only calls out Jack but also anyone who would idolize someone like Jack. At times, the film itself seems to be ridiculing the whole idea of the Hannibal Lecter-style serial killer. There’s nothing suave or witty about Jack. He’s just a loser with no soul.
Even though I was watching the R-rated version (as opposed to the unrated director’s cut), the murders were still disturbingly graphic. But what really made the film unsettling was its peek into Jack’s nihilistic worldview. As much as he may try to convince you otherwise, it soon becomes clear that there’s nothing going on inside of Jack’s head. When Jack isn’t suffering from delusions of grandeur, he’s mired in self-pity. (Listening to Jack, one is reminded of the infamous BTK Killer, who spent hours in court describing his murders without a hit of emotion but who later broke into tears when informed that he would be spending the rest of his life in prison.) Unlike most movie serial killers, Jack doesn’t have a flamboyant origin story or any sort of trauma-related motive for his crimes. He kills because he wants to. Jack is capable of being superficially charming. As a sociopath, he’s learned how to put people at ease. But there’s nothing behind that charm. When he performs some post-mortem surgery to give one of his victims a permanent smile, the results are grotesque because Jack has no idea what a real emotion looks like. (Jack weakly waves at the body, as if he’s trying to teach himself how to act like a normal person.)
Throughout the film, we get a lot of stock footage. (It’s justified by the fact that Jack is talking about art and history, two subjects about which he only has a surface knowledge.) Interestingly enough, we also get several clips that were lifted from Von Trier’s previous films. At one point, Jack passes a cabin that some viewers will recognize from Antichrist. While Jack tries to dispose of a body, David Bowie’s Fame plays on the soundtrack and it’s hard not to be reminded of how Bowie’s Young Americans played over the closing credits of both Dogville and Manderlay. We’re left to wonder if Jack is meant to be, in some way, a stand-in for Von Trier. Much like Jack, Von Trier is often accused of using his own artistic pretensions to justify a nihilistic and misogynistic worldview. It’s easy to imagine Verge as a stand-in for some of Von Trier’s fiercest critics. What then are we to make of the fact that the film also portrays Verge as being correct and Jack as being (literally) bound for Hell? Is Von Trier telling us that, as much as some people may dislike him and his work, at least he’s not a serial killer like Jack? Is Von Trier attacking himself? Or is Von Trier perhaps satirizing his own controversial persona? Perhaps all three are correct.
By the film’s end, Jack is in Hell. Interestingly enough, the portal to Hell is found in a house that’s made up of the bodies of Jack’s many victims. Verge — short for Virgil, of course — gives him a tour. When Jack sees a broken bridge, Virgil informs him that it once led to Heaven but it can’t be crossed now. However, Jack is convinced that he can climb over a cliff and make his way to Heaven. Virgil assures Jack that many have tried but none have succeeded. Jack, of course, tries and, needless to say, he doesn’t make it. In the end, redemption is impossible and yet you wonder how, in a world with Heaven and, one assumes, God, Jack even came to exist in the first place. If Jack had channeled his sociopathic nature into something more productive than murder, would he have been allowed into Heaven?
As I said, it’s a well-made film but it’s also deeply unsettling. I’m probably going to be jumping at my own shadow for at least a week or two. At the very least, I’m not answering the door for anyone….