To be frank with you, I had some serious concern before watching Lars von Trier’s latest film “The House That Jack Built”. I heard that many audiences walked out of the screening room when it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival early in this year, so I was not so sure about whether I could endure whatever von Trier was going to hurl at me during 2.5 hours.
To my horror and astonishment, the movie turned out to be far worse than I ever imagined. While it is surely as unpleasant, vicious, nihilistic, and misogynistic as we can expect from a work by von Trier, the movie is hopelessly dull, dreary, and drowsy in its pedantic and pretentious presentation of human cruelty and depravity, and it sometimes feels like a tediously rambling class presentation which would make you get asleep at times (Full disclosure: That did happen to me several times, no matter how much I tried to concentrate on whatever was told and shown on the screen).
Mainly consisting of five acts, the movie chronicles several crucial acts of killing in the life of its serial killer hero, who is named, yes, Jack (Matt Dillon). As he flatly and constantly discusses with a certain character played by Bruno Ganz on the soundtrack, each of the five acts of the movie presents his growing depravity and cruelty step by step, and then it is followed by a sanctimonious epilogue which is laughable at best and offensive at worst.
During the first act, Jack is driving on a road when he comes across a woman played by Uma Thurman. Because not only her car but also her jack are broken, she asks him to take her to a nearby blacksmith’s shop where she can get her jack fixed, and he agrees to do that, but then, while talking a bit with him in his vehicle, she blatantly wonders whether he is a serial killer, which is, of course, true. Jack keeps himself cool and detached for a while, but, what do you know, he eventually hits her head hard with that jack (Isn’t it too symbolic?), and then he takes care of the aftermath without leaving anything to incriminate him.
In case of the second act, Jack approaches to a middle-aged woman played by Siobhan Fallon Hogan. Once he confirms that she is alone in her house, he embarks on a rather silly act of deception to baffle and confuse her, and she comes to let him into her house when he suggests the possibility of getting more insurance money. While Jack’s eventual killing of that poor woman is surely unpleasant and reprehensible to say the least, we are also served with an insipid scene where he manages to evade a policeman’s suspicion even while snooping around at a crime scene right in front of that policeman, and then there later come a couple of bloody and gruesome moments which will probably make you cringe and disgusted for good reasons.
Around that part, Jack reflects a bit on his childhood years via several flashback scenes, and von Trier pushes the film further into his mean, vicious bad taste. At first, he shows us young Jack freely running around in a bush and then leisurely watching a bunch of guys mechanistically working on a meadow, but then he shocks and repels us as showing young Jack casually committing a cruel, sadistic act upon a duckling.
Not long after that reprehensible moment, the movie enters its third act, which initially shows Jack befriending a mother with two children, played by Sofie Gråbøl. He later takes them to a remote place around a forest where he demonstrates his shooting skill in front of them, and, not so surprisingly, he comes to kill all of them while also showing more of his cruelty and depravity in front of us.
I forgot to tell you that, around this narrative point, Jack already killed more than 10 people at least while also gaining his own nickname in public: Mr. Sophistication. As your average obsessive-compulsive disorder case, he always makes sure that his crime scenes look neat and clean, and he also has a big cold storage room hidden from outside, where he not only stores the bodies of some of his victims but also expresses more of his evil nature in an, uh, artistic way.
During the fourth act of the movie, Jack happens to spend a little private time with a woman played Riley Keough. She is genuinely interested in getting to know him more, but then he gradually reveals his dark side to her as viciously and sadistically mistreating her, and what eventually happens is another repellent example of how misogynistic and nihilistic the movie can be.
Around its fifth act, the movie keeps droning on as before, even though Jack attempts to do something different for his latest act of killing. When Ganz’s character finally appears on the screen, the movie literally plunges its hero and itself into a certain kind of bottom, and then it slaps its audiences again during the end credits, which is accompanied with the most contemptuous utilization of a certain famous pop song.
Like von Trier’s recent works such as “Antichrist” (2009), “Melancholia” (2011), and “Nymphomaniac” (2013), “The House That Jack Built” surely shows us what a troubled artist he is, but it is so tepid, superficial, and incompetent that I only left with unpleasant and hollow impressions, and I am now reminded of the opening paragraphs of Roger Ebert’s review on Roman Polanski’s infamous flop “Diary of Forbidden Dreams” (1973). The more I reflect on “The House Jack Built”, the more it seems to fit to what Ebert said in his scathing review.
“There’s probably a level of competence beneath which bad directors cannot fall. No matter how dreary their imaginations, how stupid their material, how inept their actors, how illiterate their scripts, they’ve got to come up with something that can at least be advertised as a motion picture, released and forgotten.
But a talented director is another matter. If he’s made several good films, chances are that sooner or later someone will give him the money to make a supremely bad one. I wonder how much Carlo Ponti gave Roman Polanski to make “Diary of Forbidden Dreams”. Ten cents would have been excessive.”
In conclusion, “The House That Jack Built” is a cinematic disaster which shows its director at the rock bottom of his artistic sensibility and creativity, and it is not even competent enough to earn zero star from me despite its many reprehensible aspects. This is indeed one of the most uninteresting experiences during recent years, and I am only consoled by the fact that there are far more interesting films to watch out there.