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In Theaters/On VOD: THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT (2018)

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THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT
(Denmark/Sweden/France/Germany - 2018)

Written and directed by Lars von Trier. Cast: Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Sofie Grabol, Riley Keough, Jeremy Davies, Ed Speleers, Emil Thorstrup, Marijana Jankovic, Carina Skenhede, Rocco Day, Cohen Day, Osy Ikhile, Yu Ji-tae, David Bailie. (R, 151 mins)

When an ill-advised joke about "understanding" and "sympathizing with" Hitler understandably failed to land, professional provocateur and arthouse troll Lars von Trier was kicked out of the Cannes Film Festival in 2011 with his MELANCHOLIA in competition. His triumphant return to the festival earlier this year with the serial killer thriller THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT led to harumphing outrage and at least 100 walkouts. In other words, Mission Accomplished. IFC Films released von Trier's unrated, uncensored, 155-minute version for a one-night theatrical run in late November prior to the VOD rollout of the R-rated cut, shortened by four minutes. I don't really see why an edited version is necessary if it's mainly going to be seen on VOD anyway, and you can tell where the cuts are--the brutal murders of two children being a key point of repulsion at Cannes, along with one graphic scene of a woman's breasts being mutilated and sliced off. But even if you could see these few bits at full strength in the cut version, THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT isn't exactly the second coming of HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER. It is a tour-de-force for an all-in Matt Dillon as Jack, an odd, antisocial, obsessive-compulsive architect-turned-serial killer based in the rural outskirts of the Pacific Northwest, recounting five random murders over a 12-year period to an initially unseen man named Verge (Bruno Ganz). Verge scoffs at Jack's boasts and claims, sardonically taunting him with "Don't believe you're going to tell me something I haven't heard before." But by the end, Verge's snide dismissals and mocking tone will give way to legitimate horror and disgust, to the point where he finally deems Jack an "Antichrist."






Jack's murderous ways seem to have started as a spur-of-the-moment impulse decision. In "Incident 1," he happens upon a woman (Uma Thurman) stranded on the side of the road with a flat tire and a broken jack (sly foreshadowing?). She's pushy and abrasive, demanding more and more of Jack's time and telling him he "looks like a serial killer." That is, until she walks it back and says he looks like too much of a wimp to be a murderer, to which Jack's knee-jerk response is to bash her head in with the jack. Independently wealthy from an inheritance, Jack owns an empty warehouse space with a massive walk-in freezer, which he puts to use by storing her corpse. Jack's first attempt at premeditated murder comes in "Incident 2," where he awkwardly and unconvincingly tries to talk his way into home of a cop's widow (Siobhan Fallon Hogan), first by pretending to be a detective ("I'd like to see a police badge," she says. "So would I," replies Jack), and then only gaining entrance by playing on her greed by saying he's there to talk about a possible increase in her late husband's pension. After killing her, he's nearly caught by a passing cop (Ed Speleers) when his OCD and his obsessive cleanliness repeatedly force him to go back into the house and double/triple/quadruple-check to make sure he didn't miss a spot of blood, repeatedly scrubbing the floors and walls over and over again ("A murderer with OCD and to top it off, a cleaning compulsion?" needles Verge). In "Incident 3," Jack is a gun nut in a red hat taking a single mom (Sofie Grabol) and her two young sons, George (Cohen Day) and Grumpy (Rocco Day), to a vacant shooting range with predictably horrific results, including a macabre picnic where he forces her to feed bites of apple pie to her two dead boys ("This has been a good day," Jack beams with pride after this "family" outing). By this point, Jack has grown more confident in his abilities as a chameleon-like killer and begins sending murder photos to the press, calling himself "Mr. Sophistication," likely a reference to the grimly sardonic emcee at Ben Gazzara's seedy burlesque club in the 1976 John Cassavetes cult classic THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE). In "Incident 4," Jack is in full-on "bad boy" mode, manipulating and psychologically abusing Jacqueline (Riley Keough) by giving her the nickname "Simple" and boasting that he's killed 60 people and "in a couple of minutes, it'll be 61.""Incident 5" has Jack abducting five random people and taking them to his freezer--now filled with years' worth of collected victims--and lining them up for a full metal jacket to rip through all of their heads with one shot, only to be stalled by the fact that the guy at the gun shop (Jeremy Davies, twitchy as ever) sold him mislabeled ammo.


Amidst the horrors on display, there's quite a bit of dark, absurdist humor throughout, like Jack leaving one victim's severed breast under the windshield wiper of the cop who earlier issued him a parking ticket, and then using the other breast to make a wallet. And almost everything out of Verge's mouth is gold, with Ganz deploying a tone so incredulously mocking of Jack that you can't help but laugh (their conversations are reminiscent of Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgard's framing sequences in NYMPHOMANIAC). But the film really loses its way after the fifth incident, and when we finally see Verge onscreen near the end, the magic of Ganz's vocal performance is lost thanks to von Trier's decision to turn him into a Chuck Palahniuk plot construct. Of course, the film was never meant to exist in reality, as Jack is the most unreliable of narrators (it's even possible that "Incident 1" isn't even his first murder, since he seems so testy and preoccupied from the start), and he gets away with his acts much too easily, but at some point, THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT stops being shocking and provocative and just becomes repetitive and exhausting, with a bloated running time that borders on loitering.


A walking embodiment of the DSM-5, Jack believes that his murders constitute "art," a sentiment stemming from his disputing the differences between "architect" and "engineer" when describing his profession. This leads to endless debates with Verge about art, iconography, and the nature of "masterpieces" that play over shots of revered paintings, museum pieces, newsreel footage of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Idi Amin, various massacres and genocides, and, eventually, in a grating bit of masturbatory self-adulation, a highlight reel of clips from past von Trier films. There's some political and social commentary to be mined from this (there's no slogan on Jack's red hat in "Incident 3," but the implication is obvious), and Jack very often comes off like a pathetic incel with some major issues with women (note how it's being called a "wimp" that initially sets him off). Dillon dives into this role with fearless abandon, and von Trier crafts some undoubtedly effective and haunting images, whether it's the positioning of the victims in "Incident 3," the taxidermy method in which he preserves Grumpy's body, or something like Jack's thumb and the tip of his index finger cleaning off a single blood-drenched blade of grass, and finally, the ultimate construction of his "house." But less could've been more with THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT, and von Trier is, as usual, so self-indulgently preoccupied with poking people with sticks to get a reaction that he disappears up his own ass. Few filmmakers are more divisive than Lars von Trier, and there's moments of greatness even in his lesser films. But his need to shock and provoke for a reaction too often feels like the work of an enfant terrible making a name for himself rather than a 62-year-old who's in his fourth decade of filmmaking.


Von Trier and Dillon on the set


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