Cinematic Releases: The Darkest Light: The House That Jack Built (2018) - Reviewed

The House That Jack Built (2018) became notorious immediately as it had nearly a hundred walkouts when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Lars von Trier isn't new to controversy, in fact he invites it and relishes in it. He is a provocateur for better or worse and the transgressive themes that run through his filmography have alienated him from many cinephiles. Does he hate women? Is he a nihilist? Does he hate himself? These questions are often asked but rarely answered by the man himself. He speaks through his films.

So that brings us to his newest film, an examination of a serial killer named Jack (Matt Dillon). Jack is a sociopath and spends his time randomly murdering people and stashing them in a giant walk-in deep freezer that he owns. The narrative is divided into five "incidents" where Jack reminisces about different individuals he has killed and the circumstances surrounding them. These vignettes are presented almost documentary style (with hand-held camera work adding to that aesthetic) and in between each story there are interludes where Jack discusses philosophy with an unseen individual named Verge (Bruno Ganz).

It becomes apparent as the film progresses that both Jack and Verge represent Von Trier's views about himself as a filmmaker. Jack is the bad part of Von Trier, the misogynistic narcissist who thinks that causing pain is akin to creating art. Von Trier has long been accused of being shocking just for the attention that he gets and Jack murders his victims for the same reason--to be acknowledged as an artist. On the other hand, the Verge character is constantly critiquing Jack's actions and his personal ideology, taking every opportunity to call Jack on his bullshit. In this way, Von Trier uses these characters to deconstruct his own work as an artist. It does come off as some sort of cinematic self-flagellation at times, and Von Trier has never been subtle, so his metaphors are as nuanced as a sledgehammer to the face. That being said, it is still incredibly engaging and intimate to witness. As an aside, this film gave me the distinct impression that Von Trier doesn't think very highly of himself, which is sad (though not surprising given his earlier work).

Jack also could be interpreted as a commentary on (and condemnation of) the dangers of fascism and narcissism specifically in regards to our current administration. Again, the theme is presented quite bluntly with one scene involving the characters wearing red hats reminiscent of the "Make America Great Again" movement and the notion that people are passively standing by as atrocities occur right in our faces. One moment really stood out to me: while Jack is torturing a woman he goes into a lengthy diatribe about how "Men are always painted as guilty and killers and women are always the victims and it isn't fair etc" and the irony is absolutely stifling. One can see that lack of self-awareness constantly in the alt-right sector where self-accountability is markedly absent. 

Much ado has been made about the gore in this film, but outside of one certain sequence (involving violence against children, which has long been an unspoken taboo in films) it was no more upsetting than any other horror film. In fact, I was surprised to learn that The House That Jack Built is a dark comedy in the vein of Man Bites Dog (1992) though it wildly oscillates between humor and terror at any given moment. As for the technical aspects, I wasn't that impressed with the camera work for the first two-thirds of the film. It gets the job done and there are a few creative moments here and there. Where this movie shines is the third act which becomes an extremely beautiful Gothic art piece with striking visuals and incredible sound design. Matt Dillon is fantastic as Jack, and his detached and creepy performance carries the film.

While I wouldn't call The House That Jack Built Lars von Trier's greatest work, I would say it's his most intimate and revealing film. It is messy and imperfect at times and breathtaking and gorgeous at others. If that isn't an accurate representation of what it is to be a human, I don't know what is.

--Michelle Kisner