'The House That Jack Built' Is a Serial Killer Film That Only Wants to Troll You
No one likes a troll, save for other trolls. You can only win if you just sit there, shrugging, until the troll has finished spouting off on the provocative topic du jour, then ask, "That all you got?" It was this resolve that kept me through the 155-minute running time of The House That Jack Built, the oh-so edgy new serial killer film from sometimes-great director Lars Von Trier. At the premiere the night before, a reported 100 people (in tuxedoes and evening gowns) said "screw this" and split. I wouldn't let him win.
Some context. Seven years ago here at Cannes, Von Trier used shock-jock tactics during the press conference for his film Melancholia. He joked about his admiration for Nazi architect Albert Speer, expressed sympathy for Hitler, mused about what his Final Solution would be. He was kidding, a failed attempt to get out of an ill-advised response to a question about his German roots, but he was also being a dick. The Cannes president at the time, Gilles Jacob, a French Jew who lived in hiding during the war and whose father was a prisoner, was not amused. Von Trier was dubbed persona non grata and banished from the festival.
But no one likes to be considered a censor, so his new one was allowed to screen "out of competition." This is, after all, where his better known work, like Zentropa (Europa), Breaking the Waves, and Dancer in the Dark debuted to great acclaim.
The House that Jack Built has a section devoted to the brilliance of Albert Speer, and a montage of infamous tyrants -- including Hitler -- to give the impression that "you have to give them credit" for creating grand works of "extremest art." The last phrase is uttered over images of mass murder, including grisly footage from inside Nazi extermination camps.
Cannes, you got played.
Is Lars Von Trier really a Nazi? Like, does he read Stormfront and dream about killing Jews? No, I don't think so. But then again, a running theme of The House That Jack Built seems to condemn society for not taking very loud confessions of atrocities seriously. Matt Dillon's Jack, the repulsive psycho front and center of this film, shouts, "No one wants to help!" out an apartment window, just before he gruesomely slices off Riley Keough's breasts.
So is this a work of pure evil? Is Lars Von Trier a madman? That's part of what's so bloody annoying about it. If you clutch your pearls and get offended, then you've lost the game. The film is set in five chapters, with an admittedly lush and fascinating epilogue. Each section is one of Jack's 60-plus murders, as confessed randomly (and unreliably) to "Verge," voiced by Bruno Ganz. Eventually we realize he is Virgil, escorting Jack to a very classical version of Hell.
Jack's conversations with Verge are professorial, high-minded ruminations on art and nature and ethics. These sections are set to what are essentially museum slide shows. (The most obnoxious thing in this movie is Von Trier showing a clip or two from his own resume. Second prize goes to aping the Bob Dylan "Subterranean Homesick Blues" cards in the alleyway shtick.) Whenever Jack says something so over-the-top, Verge is there to smack him down with a "yeah, yeah, yeah tough guy." It's Von Trier's way of incorporating a little self-deprecating humor, but it also sounds like someone who doesn't have the courage to stand behind his edgier beliefs. It's all just gobbledygook.
Now, on to the killings. The first one is a bash in the face to Uma Thurman with a tire jack. This is somewhat played for laughs, because she's being so obnoxious. Then comes strangling Siobhan Fallon Hogan, which triggers Jack's OCD as he meticulously cleans up the place. The third killing involves children, and that's where most of the walkouts came. A little boy is taxidermized and made to look like Heath Ledger's Joker. I sat there and listened but closed my eyes. Most of the violence is against women, and at one point Jack's ravings ("why are men always to blame?") are straight out of an MRA subreddit.
I personally find realistic brutality in movies to be distasteful without some contribution to the story. The House That Jack Built has no story and no real characters. (The more surreal, artful violence, as was seen at this year's Cannes in Panos Cosmatos' Mandy, which is similarly light on story, is still totally welcome, I should point out.) Some critics and hardcore film bros will scrape the bloody muck off this movie, looking for some deeper meaning. More power to them, and I bet someone will even make a good point or two. But I'm here to tell you that you aren't a square, or a weakling, or advocating censorship if this film comes your way and you say, "No thank you."
Don't feed the trolls.