By Lawrence Garcia
The House That Jack Built (Director’s Cut)
Dir. Lars von Trier, Denmark, IFC Films
For Lars von Trier, performance is everything. Unmistakable is his showman’s knack for orchestrating feedback loops of self-promotion and self-sabotage. (It’s no surprise that, extending his career-long interest in the persona-driven artistry of David Bowie, he’s chosen the 1975 hit “Fame” as the theme of his latest film.) More relevant, though, are his evocations of various 20th century theatrical movements—Guy Debord’s Situationism, Allan Kaprow’s “happenings,” Brechtian social satire, the theater of cruelty—all of which could be grouped under the banner term performative. This tendency finds its apotheosis on the slate-black soundstage of Dogville (2002), but it’s also present in the ludic, Carnivalesque impulses of The Idiots (1998)—in which mental illness is “performed” with the goal of toppling bourgeois norms—as well as those of the larger Dogme 95 movement, for which he co-wrote its foundational manifesto with fellow Dane Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration). It's apropos, then, that the recent one-night-only screenings of The House That Jack Built’s “Director’s Cut” arrived in theaters much like a carnival rolling into town.
Like Nymphomaniac (2013), The House That Jack Built is structured as a conversation, in which the director’s latest unsocialized interloper, the eponymous serial killer Jack (a superb Matt Dillon), relates five “randomly chosen incidents” spanning a dozen or so years. “Are you allowed to speak along the way?” he asks at the outset. “I was thinking there might be rules.” Though it’s immediately clear that he’s on some kind of journey, the full context of his query, as well as the precise identity of his interlocutor (Bruno Ganz), referred to only as “Verge,” will only be revealed later on. For now, we get only Ganz’s dulcet voice in response: “Very few make it all the way without uttering a word. People are overcome with a strange and sudden need to confess on these trips, and not all of it can be said to be of great rhetorical quality.”
The setting is once again the Pacific Northwest of Dancer in the Dark (2000), specifically Washington—but perhaps more saliently, the film lays its foundations within the nebulous space of von Trier's very public, self-constructed persona. Complicating matters are the twinned concerns of (religious) confession and psychoanalysis brought in by the aforementioned exchange—recurring elements that can be traced back to the literally hypnotic, second-person narration of Europa (1991), the director’s last film to feature a solo male protagonist. But despite the potential pitfalls of dime-store psychologizing and intentional fallacy, the new extremes with which von Trier applies this familiar performance-centric model makes The House That Jack Built a work worth grappling with—for in Dillon’s psychopath, von Trier seems to have found something of an ideal subject. And the polyphony of discourse that arises from this unstable linkage of author and text—which is at times ugly, contradictory, and even downright obscene—is what provides the film with its animating tension and uniquely disconcerting power.
A slasher film in the same way that Nymphomaniac was pornography, which is to say only nominally, The House That Jack Built aims not to sustain terror, but to induce a kind of lethal whiplash in the viewer, disarming with hackneyed developments or debased comedy, and then interposing sharp, violent shocks. In the first incident, a woman stranded by the side of the road doesn’t just ask Jack for help getting her (yes) jack repaired, but also carries on about how he looks like a serial killer who could murder her at any moment. In short order, he does.
The victim is played by Uma Thurman, whose presence here suggests a not-unproductive link to the grindhouse riffs of Quentin Tarantino. Indeed, watching Jack’s grandiose ruminations on art played against the humiliating ineptitude of his as-yet-unrefined methods in the first two incidents, one might recall Death Proof (2007), a film that saw Kurt Russell’s vile, misogynistic Stuntman Mike—whose killing methods entailed a literal slamming of the brakes—brought low by a coterie of women. In place of a death proof cage, Jack seems to possess only sheer luck and male privilege. But as it soon becomes clear, these are more than sufficient.
More so than most artists, von Trier relishes responding to his critics, which he does so here by effectively doubling down. Fully aware of charges of misogyny made against his prior films, he nonetheless includes only female victims (and two male children) in all but the last of Jack’s “randomly chosen” incidents, and on top of that has Jack carry on about the “injustice” of being born male in the fourth. (”Men—they’re always the criminals,” he lectures Riley Keough’s Kitty Genovese-style victim before mutilating her with a knife.) Recreating the clip of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” from D.A. Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back (1967), he shows Jack holding up and then smugly discarding cue cards that “coincidentally” note the usual objections against him, among them: egotism, vulgarity, mood swings, and narcissism. Such explicit auteur-as-serial killer parallels are hardly novel for the Danish provocateur, whose career’s jarring fillips and stylistic reversals and genre shifts have remained bound by an unmistakable authorial imprint. We’re talking, after all, about a director whose short film contribution to the 60th edition of Cannes, the festival that vaulted him onto the world stage, starred himself as an axe-wielding theatergoer who, when asked what he does for a living, says only: “I kill.” (He dismembers the questioner shortly after.) But it’s also worth considering that this latest arrives in a media landscape inundated with a kind of unthinking ghoulish fascination, such as with long-running shows of the CSI and Criminal Minds variety. Von Trier is specifically responding to an audience accustomed to morbidity by creating a film whose restless movements and explicitly interrogative framework refuse easy acceptance of violence and death. However self-regarding his methods, or base his underlying impulses, the point—to borrow from Jacques Rivette’s “On Abjection”—is that von Trier “judges that which he shows, and is judged by the way in which he shows it.” In other words, The House That Jack Built defies you to accustom yourself to it.
Von Trier’s own engagement with the serial killer genre, though, dates back all the way to his breakout feature The Element of Crime (1984), a work of virtuosic, if also numbing formalist bravado that culminates with its detective protagonist having absorbed the identity of the serial killer he’s been hunting. It also happens to have a scene where a prostitute recites the very nursery rhyme that gives this latest its title and structuring principle. Like the cumulative lines that trace a causal series of actions and phenomena, all leading back to the foundational phrase “...in the house that Jack built,” the film continually extends outwards, observing as Dillon's psychopath perfects his gruesome butchery, while repeatedly returning to the giant walk-in freezer in which he keeps an ever-mounting pile of corpses. At times, its backwards movements seem like attempts to trace an original sin.
The House That Jack Built is not a work that lacks for entry points; it’s a multi-pronged attack meant to induce a shortness of breath, whether by nervous laughter, sick tension, or outright revulsion. Mainly functioning as a dialectic, it finds its most ideal form as an essay-film, with Jack ruminating on such disparate subjects as Glenn Gould (whose eccentricities as an artist-performer provide a useful model for von Trier’s own) and his cherished childhood memory of the village men taking a scythe to the grass in the surrounding fields—a vision of life that also entails a reaping. Though most initial criticisms centered on the film’s explicit depictions of misogynistic violence, it’s in this full-bore essay mode (and using only archival footage) that its most unsettling passage unfolds. Holding forth on the value of icons such as the Stuka (the German WWII dive-bomber known for the aural terror of its siren), Jack laments how so many ignore the true “icon-creators” of the world such as Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Idi Amin—those who make what is, for him, a form of “extravagant art.” These pronouncements are accompanied by images of mass murder and genocide, as well as harrowing concentration camp clips one might recognize from Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog (1956), a film whose history of censorship von Trier is clearly invoking. Taken in isolation, this brief section is perverse, repugnant, and utterly indefensible.
Yet soon after comes a moment of soul-shaking moral clarity: an abrupt cut to black accompanied by Verge’s anguished shriek of “Stop it!” Some might see this as a fraudulent hedging of bets, an attempt to generate complexity through irresolvable contradiction and preempt criticism by dint of unsparing candor. Indeed, the increasingly inward turn of von Trier’s career in the past decade with the “Depression Trilogy”—Antichrist (2009), Melancholia (2011), and Nymphomaniac—might well speak to grotesque narcissism. Though von Trier has Jack reject the trite notion that atrocities committed in art are expressions of their maker’s aberrant desires—the pronouncement is accompanied by no less than a montage of his past films—The House That Jack Built remains seeded with his public neuroses. But there’s also a vitality here that goes beyond either sincerity or irony. Indeed, the film’s very existence seems born of grim necessity. Hemmed in on all sides in the final incident, Jack is forced into a previously unexplored room of his walk-in freezer, within which we finally see Ganz’s kindly figure. The empty space and its bare steel walls seem almost a Sartrean waiting room; we’ve been privy to something of an in camera hearing all along.
In the final frames of The Element of Crime, its fraught protagonist peers into a sewer hole, at the bottom of which a small, nocturnal creature stares back. It’s an ending that some 24 years later seems like a prelude to the headlong dive of this film’s epilogue: “Katabasis.” Ganz’s “Verge,” of course, is the Roman poet Virgil, Dante’s guide through Hell and Purgatory in the Divine Comedy. Taking Jack through a manhole-shaped exit, he likewise ferries the serial killer towards final judgment. The spiraling, tortured byways of the underworld tour that follows—which include a kitschy-sublime restaging of Eugène Delacroix’s The Barque of Dante (1822) and numerous Tarkovskian tableaux à la Melancholia—eventually lead to a yawning, abyssal pit. It is the origin to which the film has been leading this entire time. An exit is within sight, but one must risk eternal damnation to reach it—which is precisely what Jack does, forgoing his fated destination “a few circles up” and scaling the craggy walls of this bottomless pit of fire.
If the identities of Jack and von Trier were previously still separable, this hellish crucible forges them together irrevocably. Whatever else one might say about von Trier, this is filmmaking imbued with terrifying clarity regarding its (self-)destructive nature. It’s an act of self-immolation and purgation that carries the firm belief that gazing at the “dark light” of an image—indeed, of human existence—may reveal something essential, sublime even. Jack’s hand slips, and as he falls out of sight, the film’s scorching final frame gives way to its photographic negative, the shift accompanied by a persistent, eerie ringing. The intentional hackery that follows—playing Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road Jack” over the closing credits scroll—may offer viewers an abrupt release, a moment to catch their breath. But the aphotic vision lingers, as does the distinct terror of a free-fall for which there is no end.