I’m not saying Lars von Trier‘s The House That Jack Built isn’t repellent in more ways than you can shake a stick at. It’s an odious, ice-cold exercise in homicidal perversity, and one for the record books at that. It should probably be avoided by anyone with a weak stomach or…oh, hell, by anyone who feels that films should exude some form of love or worship or celebration, which probably covers 99% of the moviegoing public.
But after last night’s build-up (tweets conveying disgust and rage, reports of people walking out of the black-tie premiere) I was expecting a diseased horror-murder tale so excessive that it might make me physically sick or prompt me to walk out or get into a fight with one of the security guys.
It didn’t do that. It turned out to be more of a meditative guilt confessional — about LVT more or less admitting that he may not be a good enough artist to deliver worthy, lasting art, and that all he really knows how to do is shock and agitate. (That’s what I got from it, at least.) I’m not saying it’s a better film than I expected, but it’s dryer and more meditative and not as heinous as I feared.
Portions of Jack are awful to sit through and the overall tone may be an equivalent to the professionally distanced, carefully maintained mindset of a psychological counselor in a hospital for the criminally insane. But for all the innate ugliness and sadistic cruelty on-screen, Von Trier is basically analyzing himself by way of Matt Dillon‘s Jack, a serial killer based in the Pacific Northwest, and casting a cold eye upon his shortcomings as a filmmaker.
Dillon is a would-be architect but is only gifted enough to be an engineer, he gradually admits. This is Von Trier talking about himself, of course — admitting to his audience that he’s “not quite Ivy League”, and that after shooting his wad on Breaking The Waves, The Idiots, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville that all he really knows how to do now is make shock-and-appall movies like this, Antichrist, the two Nymphomaniac films and so on.
I’m not saying Jack gets a pass, but at least LVT has tried to make it into something more thoughtful and meditative than just a series of clinical, cold-blood episodes showing recreations of this and that method of murder. It’s ugly and rancid, but about more than just that.
The final sequence or epilogue is a twelve-minute tour of a lava-rich Dante’s Inferno with Bruno Ganz, dressed in some kind of 19th Century undertaker’s outfit, serving as a diplomatic tour guide. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this portion redeems the film, but at least it concludes with a windy meditation about failure and self-loathing, good and bad art, vision and dysfunction, striving and suffering. So at least the film attempts to focus on something other than mere shock and gore, and it does end with Dillon…well, not in a good place.
That’s as far as I’d care to go right now. I’m going to nap for a while and then do some re-writing, and then keep a doctor’s appointment (I need to refill an antibiotic prescription) and catch Solo: A Star Wars Story at 7:30 pm.