The House that Jack Built (2018) by Lars Von Trier
Review by Logan Kenny
Content Warning: Abuse
Jack sits with a forced smile, stares into the eyes of the woman that loves him, and asks her “why would I ever leave you?”
A few minutes later, he’s psychologically tormenting her, breaking her down for her lack of intelligence, forcing her to scream to an audience of no one before mutilating and murdering her, putting her body in a freezer where she remains as a piece of his grotesque architecture. She is forever a piece of his search for artistic meaning. Her fear of him leaving was never fulfilled, in his eyes, he gave her what she wanted. Even in death, this woman is tied to Jack. No matter how hard she tried to run, how loud she screamed, Jack was the reason she died and the reason she’ll be remembered. Jack is your quintessential abuser: a being who makes you feel insecure about them not being a part of your life, breaking down your barriers and making you so vulnerable that they can pick up the pieces as the arbiter of your salvation. Then they move the pieces, tug at the cracks until you break again, emotionally and/or physically. The worst fear of an abuse victim is that you will die because of them, whether it’s their hands taking your life, or the trauma they’ve caused breaking you mentally to the point where you can’t survive anymore. My worst fear as an abuse victim was not that I’d die, but that I’d be forgotten in the aftermath of their decay, that my name would be lost to memory in the examination of the person that tortured me. It never came that far for me thankfully, but for many, it’s what lives on.
Cinema’s exploration of the serial killer on these terms has been largely in favour of sensationalism, whether it’s the adaptation of My Friend Dahmer, which ignores the victims of Dahmer in favour of tackling the origins of what could make such a man, or the upcoming Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, which originally planned to release on the anniversary of Sharon Tate’s murder. The public at large remembers the victims of these murders for their bloody corpses, the innocent women slaughtered by the men, often their names fading into dust while the men that ordered or perpetuated their deaths became notorious and celebrated by some. The serial killer in this context is the abuser taken to the highest extremes, a manipulator who destroys and ends the lives of the people they encounter, leaving their existences in their shadow.
The House That Jack Built understands this - that these people are forever left lingering as a part of his image, that the slaughtered women and children exist only to the audience as aspects in Jack’s tale. On a more metatextual level, it’s Lars Von Trier understanding that he, as the artist, has inflicted psychological abuse on the people he’s worked with - that he has forever tied them to his name and his actions. Jack’s purpose in the film is to kill in order to create, and while he’s seemingly a parodic portrayal of both Men’s Rights Activists (he monologues about how men are viewed as monsters by women and how impossible it is to escape that before cutting away at a female victim) and the philosophical archetypes present in Von Trier’s earlier work. It’s clear that there is a presence of Lars’ reality that he has put into this film. The film’s balancing of what is parody and what isn’t is often hazy but by the latter half especially, the personal side to the creation starts to become impossible to ignore. Jack’s art is one of destroying the image, trying to find beauty in the rotting of bodies and mental states - and it’s impossible to separate that from the personal life of the artist, especially when he implements footage from his other movies (often about the beauty of chaos and death) in order to make a further point about the nature of art itself.
The reports of the psychological abuse Von Trier inflicted upon Bjork while he made Dancer in the Dark are impossible to ignore, impossible to not think about while watching a movie this self loathing and reflective. The pain he inflicted on her caused her to quit acting, which irrevocably changed how her life could have went, and is still something brought up nearly 20 years later. Last year, she even accused him of sexual abuse, of touching her inappropriately for minutes at a time without consent and at one point, threatening to climb over to her balcony with a clear sexual intention. Furthermore, nine women who worked for Von Trier’s production company, Zentropa have reported a culture of toxic sexual harassment, degradation and bullying, to the extent that some of the women were unable to continue working in the film industry. These allegations against the man and his filmmaking process are impossible to ignore and to separate from the text. The abuser keeps the victim in their image, so they can never escape. So: is The House That Jack Built the cinematic form of further manipulation? A work with the pretense of self-examination that is actually just another reminder of the pain that many women have went through? Or is it a genuine apology, a work of intense self loathing, an abuser longing with existential suffering and a desire for death because he can’t achieve the catharsis in this life anymore?
Jack is a failed artist. An artist who fails in creating something great on his own terms. He can’t make the house of his dreams and overcome his lack of true imagination to be a creator, so he kills to try and find art in death, in the merciless, violent end of life. He thought he could find his purpose in the beauties of the world, in the creation process, in bringing something to life that no one else could, yet he failed. His own mental state is fractured, diagnosing himself with an array of mental conditions to try and explain his various anxieties and lack of empathy. Matt Dillon’s performance is miraculous, almost reminiscent of a body snatcher in how he inhabits a human body with none of the traits that make us who we are. He’s a being of pure masochism, constantly swinging between moral and immoral, between stable and completely free of inhibitions. Every single scene is filled with the potential of him slitting another throat. Von Trier manages to strip all humanizing qualities away from Jack, so that you never empathize with him or feel anything but disdain or amusement at his failings, even if Von Trier occasionally has a desire to understand the murderer.
All the deaths don’t fulfill Jack because he is unable to bring a new spin on death, he imitates other murderers and other works of art that have captivated him. He takes advice from his victims and acts on instinct instead of deliberately executing a plan. He takes Nazi strategies and focuses on bragging about his inability to be cancelled. He takes and takes and gives nothing back but misery and blood. He justifies his artistic approach by citing examples of nature’s natural decay resulting in beautiful works, but it’s clear that he is hollow, broken down by the lack of fulfillment he gets from these deaths. He cannot bring creativity to anything and that is his curse; the abuse and pain he’s inflicted didn’t create anything worthwhile except a pile of bodies. Eventually he’ll walk through hell and have to reconcile with every action he’s made in order to choose whether it was all worth it. Was it?
The curse of my life and my experiences makes it hard to cope with the idea of self-reflexive art from a man who may be a complete monster. It’s hard to imagine art from the perspective of the people who caused me pain as being justifiable or interesting examinations of a broken mind. I don’t know his mindset about making it; I don’t want to hear it. I want this work to forever remain an unanswered question, a confusing and deplorable and potentially masterful unanswered question. While watching it, I found it gruesome, occasionally grimly funny, and at one point, cathartic, in a way I don’t know how to describe. Whether it’s sincere or not, it felt nice to look at an abuser’s text and feel them suffer over their actions. It gave me something that I can’t get in my real life. That might sound selfish or cruel, but it’s the thought that ran through my mind during the epilogue, and what sticks with me hours after it ended. I have many questions and not many answers, but it helped me grasp something about my own abuse that I didn’t expect, it helped me realise that I’m able to heal a little more than I thought. I do think that the film is very good. Despite my skepticism around its sincerity and as someone who’s mixed on Von Trier generally, it’s probably his most interesting and arguably greatest work. I just don’t know if it’s a good thing that it exists, that he’s still able to make movies while women affected by him stay far away from cameras because of their trauma. I hope he’s in therapy and never hurts anyone again, and I hope that if any of the people he’s affected watched this, that they felt a form of solace while it unfolded, that they got something that made the lingering pain easier. I hope that they’re okay.