With The House That Jack Built (2018) Lars Von Trier implies that the devil mistakes aesthetics for art, has an innate disdain for the body while its alive, and that in close-up – he’s one dull mofo.
I think he’s onto something.
It was somewhat of an event in itself watching the audience leave the cinema one by one, while Matt Dillon‘s dead-eyed serial killer Jack, savagely murdered and mutilated one human being after another, mostly middle-aged women, but also children, and finally anyone he crossed paths with, driving his blood-red van. Although, it must be said, old white dudes were the last to go.
Maybe it’s because Jack has a soft spot for his ilk, lamenting the injustice of the world where men are the ones born guilty, while women get to be lucky, and wind up victims. He has a particular blood lust for the ones that might not be the brightest, but seem the most vulnerable, although he does in Uma Thurman‘s crudely over-the-top ballbreaker first, which sets the tone for the orgy of misogyny to come.
Jack’s an engineer, but badly wanted to be an architect – his mother veered him towards the more financially solid option. She is mentioned only once, and only then, but that one time was more than enough.
He’s a sensitive, highly imaginative child, with a strong sadistic streak, and winds up a loner with OCD, trying and failing to erect buildings, managing only to assemble their skeletal beginnings, before having them mowed down. In the meantime, he kills people, styling himself as Mr Sophistication. And his slaughter as iconic art.
We know all this because in voice-over, he talks to Verge (aka Virgil), Bruno Ganz cast perfectly (and heartbreakingly) as his confessor and guide to the Underworld. Comparing himself to the monster tyrants that forged empires (excellent B-roll Mr Trier), the Great Architect (unexpected nod to metanarrative) and William Blake’s tyger (inevitably), Jack is a case in narcissism that Verge comes across pretty often in his work of escorting souls to eternal damnation – still he winces, ‘you read Blake as Satan would read the Bible’. Everything is in the spin.
Yet, regardless of the demonic amoral stance – freedom of doing anything you please in destruction still seems poor compensation for being unable to do anything in creation.
There’s nobody watching, Jack would say.
You are, Jack.
Checking out the feedback online, I saw people complaining that Dillon’s sociopath is dead boring – and never was an ironic point better made in cinema. Because, that’s the gist. Slaughter is not supposed to be entertaining. It’s to Von Trier’s eternal credit that he deglamorises the entire vile enterprise, showing it for what it is – banal, ritualised anger as cauterisation to the inner hemorrhaging of a deformed soul.
Jack is defiling his own spirit (and other’s sacred bodies) to the point of damnation in search of a single spark of creation. Of course, he cannot find it. Simply because he is looking for it in the way it can never be found.
Only three tiny specks of life appear in Jack’s eye, one of them even bringing out a genuine tear of regret. All of them are to do with a simplicity of beauty in the world, a tenderness of being, that then brings out the beast that must crush this impulse towards compassion. Shallow sentimentality is one of the traits of a psychopath, but there is some deep sorrow mixed in these sentiments in the empty shell that is Jack – an inner respect, a longing for a feeling he is unable or rather unwilling to internelise.
Virgil knows. Love hurts. And creation requires love.
Otherwise, there is only form without soul. The house that Jack builds. Hell is frozen.
Jack saddened me. And humanity, with Jack in it. Unlike the street light animation Dillon’s character was so fond of examining, as intelligent blueprint for his actions – darkness once revealed in harsh light disappears, not into a dense, but into a shriveled shadow. A tiny non-entity hiding behind a cloak of self-created complexity.
Jack has only one actual impulse, a pretty straightforward one – to continue. Endlessly. And get away with it. Desperate for something other than himself to stop him.
Untold piles of dosh have been made from mythologising the psychopath. If you ever visited a slaughterhouse, you know that this is what murder actually is – horrific, dull, and ultimately, ridiculous desecration of the divine.
We are the moral fulcrums of our Universe. Everything depends on our own choice. While some force, somewhere, keeps balance.
Lars Von Trier grabs your head and shoves it into the vortex of any subject he chooses to examine. Is this sadistic? Still not sure on that. It’s never a pleasant journey, but he always delivers the goods, in abundance. Because, as an artist, he is one serious genius. And that does not seem to change.
He even managed to make me chuckle at the end credits of one of the most gruesome films I’ve ever watched. Jack’s comeuppance is solid gold. And good jest is a kind of love.
I gave it four stars, rather than five, although in its way, it is perfect. Because a film about evil should always be missing something.
Author: ©Milana Vujkov