Let’s take a look at the new film from the bad boy of cinema.
Lars von Trier is a divisive director—to say the least. His films are deliberately abrasive, often troubling, and sometimes brilliant. For me, he is a master at presenting dual narratives, and it takes a close eye to see the point he is actually trying to make.
The House That Jack Built follows Jack (Matt Dillon) as he recounts a series of incidents in his life to a mostly unseen man named Verge (Bruno Ganz). Immediately, the film descends into depravity as Jack murders Woman 1 (Uma Thurman) by bashing her to death with a broken carjack.
The woman is insufferable, and is constantly berating Jack—and this is the first time something fascinating happened in the theater. The men in the audience cheered when she was struck. Now, here is where most critics seem to stop with Trier—he shows an annoying person being tortured and we are meant to laugh. However, Verge immediately casts doubt on this, and constantly challenges Jack’s stories. Jack is an unreliable narrator, and he is also a vicious psychopath. Of course to him these women deserve their fate. What astonished me was the gendered reaction in the theater.
During the brutal moments of the film, the men laughed and the women cringed. Honestly, I could feel my instinct to roll my eyes at the heavy-handed nature of Jack recounting the terrible fate of men, and how unfair it is to be a man in America, all while preparing to cut a woman’s breast off. However, given the jeering and giggling at his abuse towards women, I actually wonder if the film wasn’t heavy-handed enough.
I suppose this is the rub with Trier. The brutality of his films often presents a misogynistic worldview, but the counter narrative within critiques and indicts the audience into buying into these worldviews (after all, we all went to see a movie about a man who murders women—mostly). A friend of mine once critiqued Doggville for being too obvious with its thesis about capitalism, but now I wonder if it is only obvious to people who critically engage with film. For people wanting to analyze the meaning behind a picture, Trier is heavy-handed. (Yes, I realize how snobbish this must sound).
Jack is the embodiment of an entitled incel. He believes he is entitled to maim and butcher people for his own happiness. We have scenes of women begging for help and not being believed, and the links to current gender issues cannot be ignored. Jack is manipulative, intelligent, and incredibly irrational. The film begs the audience to blame the victims, and then points out the problems with doing such things.
Any film that indicts the audience is interesting to me. Here, we have layovers of other Trier films, lessons in architecture, philosophical musings, and recreations of classic art. Jack believes that destruction is the key to creation, and Verge argues it is love. The two arguments go back and forth, complete with Jack commended Nazi architecture, and Verge being appalled by these statements. Interestingly, as the film begins to utilize more hellish imagery, we see the argument being made of: don’t you as the viewer enjoy these images of death and destruction?
The fact that this movie will more or less force you to think about it afterword is something I would consider a major plus. As far as a cinematic experience, it is an interesting one. Dillon is chilling in this role, and this might be some of his best acting. None of the performances are bad—even from the small roles. We have a story of addiction more or less, and this runs in the vein of Trier’s last film Nymph()maniac.
Stylistically, I like the interruptions and lessons throughout the movie. The weird (and sometimes jarring) style of Trier is going to be divisive. This one looks like a mix between Antichrist and Nymph()maniac, and less like Breaking the Waves. He is evolving as an artist, and for me the evolution is mostly positive. There is an odd level of fun in the interludes, and Jack seems to relish in having the attention on him.
I suppose I may as well bring up the elephant in the room: the film is quite violent. It might be Trier’s most violent film, but in terms of gore it is less than one is probably thinking. Violence in cinema is so odd, we don’t care about the droves of butchered zombies in a film, but here we protest. Yes, the violence is graphic, and has a realistic feel (similar to Funny Games) that makes it less entertaining and more disturbing. Honestly, I think a lot of the people walked out at Cannes just to say they walked out of a Trier film.
With our culture’s current need to believe men in power over victimized women, I think it is interesting to have a film show a psychopathic liar murdering women, and forcing his justifications onto us, and for those explanations to be accepted at face value. I loved the movie, and think it tries to force us to see a problem in its ugliest (and perhaps truest) form. I suppose my only concern is that those who need to hear this message seem to be unable or unwilling to look beyond the surface level.
Anyway, the R-rated cut releases in a couple weeks. The director’s cut is worth seeing, but if you’re worried I would wait for the edits. Either way, this is worth seeing and discussing.