It started with laughter and ended with a round of applause. No, this was not a comedy show, but it sure felt like one. This was the screening for the director’s cut of Lars Von Trier’s newest piece of controversy, The House That Jack Built. For two-and-a-half hours, von Trier showcased his latest experiment in misogyny, violence, and stroking his own ego.
The House That Jack Built marks von Trier’s return to filmmaking after being banned from Cannes in 2011 for making comments about sympathizing with Hitler. His newest film documents 12 years in the life of Jack, played by Matt Dillon, and the five incidents that he believes have defined him as a serial killer, as recounted to Verge (Bruno Ganz). These five incidents involve the brutal murder and mutilation of female bodies, save for the last incident. To Jack, these murders are an act of high art, markers of his own intelligence — what he’s doing is not wrong because it is in the name of art. The film follows a Dante-like structure as we traverse through the different incidents like the circles of hell, and perhaps even wander into hell itself.
Watching this film is like descending into hell as we see women’s bodies treated as objects for male pleasure and ego-stroking. Jack is building a house, alright, and it is built from misogyny and body parts. Jack’s actions reminded me of Patrick Bateman of Mary Harron’s American Psycho. He kills all in the name of his own pleasure, playing with bodies, and treating them like toys to be collected. But, instead of Harron’s critique on male ego, we merely have von Trier’s own view of women and, unsurprisingly, he doesn’t seem to like them. The treatment of Riley Keough’s character is a prime example. She plays a blonde woman named Jacqueline that Jack has so lovingly nicknamed Simple. She is, to Jack, “dumb as fuck,” which grants him permission to scream at her, trap her in her apartment, and cut off her “amazing tits.” This is only one of five incidents.
Von Trier shows Jack manipulating, hunting, and strangling women, letting the camera linger on the women’s faces contorted in horror. We are meant to luxuriate in the pain, really look at it, and even laugh at it. But to what end? There is a disturbing trend in male filmmakers who think they’re making some kind of profound statement when they use extreme violence without purpose. Sure, you can cut off Riley Keough’s breasts and make them into a wallet. But should you? Probably not.
Using a hyper violent serial killer, von Trier took a cultural obsession with murder and constructed narrative that could have made a poignant critique of our crime-obsessed society, a society that needs to get inside the killer’s mind and learn every last horrifying detail about his crimes. Instead, he used that obsession to talk about himself and reflect back on his body of work, telling the audience that he really thinks he has made art. But, unfortunately, it’s difficult to look past the trail of destroyed female bodies left in Jack’s wake to truly applaud von Trier for this strange experiment.
This baffling film is not without its comedic moments. Every bizarre event is taken to the extreme that you can’t help but laugh, at least out of incredulity. As Jack drives for miles with a dead body dragging behind his red van, you laugh. Why? Because the whole scenario is entirely ridiculous, especially as it begins to rain all all of the evidence of this heinous crime is washed away. You laugh and shake your head over and over again as this white male character continues to get away with his violent, misogynistic behavior; he exists without consequences. You laugh because you are frustrated, confused, and aren’t sure what von Trier is trying to say.
Some of the film’s comedy is spurred by the intense self-awareness that von Trier’s showcases throughout. As previously mentioned, this is von Trier’s “triumphant” return to cinema. So, in honor of his own return, he made a film containing clips from his previous movies and, unsurprisingly, clips of Hitler, as if to poke at his critics. In line with this self-awareness, von Trier even brings his own mental illnesses into The House With Jack Built.
Von Trier has discussed his own struggles with mental illness, including OCD, which plays an important role in the film’s beginning, as Jack believes his OCD is part of the reason why he needs to murder. I was recently diagnosed with OCD and I was not thrilled to see it used as an explanation for Jack’s behavior, as well as a comedic device. As Jack keeps returning to a victim’s home to make sure he has wiped up the blood, the audience in my screening couldn’t stop laughing. Perhaps von Trier is poking fun at his own mental illness, looking at his own compulsions and how they define him. As Verge remarks, what’s funnier than a serial killer with OCD? But instead of laughing, this sequence had me clenching my fists and fidgeting in my seat. As I felt like crawling out of my own skin, it suddenly became clear: everything is a joke to von Trier.
Despite this seeming laundry list of critiques, Matt Dillon’s performance as Jack was superb. He was chilling, terrifying, icy, and funny as Jack grows and learns how to become a killer. Dillon is utterly unsympathetic, which I believe saves this film. He is repulsive but compelling enough to keep you wanting to know more about Jack and why he is this way. Even in the scenes where he kills, Dillon displays an admirable amount of control, which emphasizes that these murders are necessary for what he believes is his own sanity.
Perhaps those reading this review will think that I didn’t understand the film. Perhaps they’ll say I’m a prude or a SJW or someone who just doesn’t appreciate irony (whatever that means). I’m sure there will be plenty of faceless Twitter users knocking down my proverbial door. But perhaps they should also consider why these portrayals of extreme torture, abuse, and murder of women wouldn’t land well. Perhaps they, too, should understand the utter exhaustion of having to watch women be hunted, taunted, and manipulated in the name of character development for Jack, or even for some kind of self-referential redemption arc for von Trier. Perhaps there are other tools to tell your attempt at self-criticism besides degrading your women characters by making sweeping generalizations about their intelligence then tearing their bodies apart. But this is all mere speculation on my part. All that I know is that I would like to burn Jack’s house down to the ground.