Film & TV

The House That Jack Built Takes on the Apocalypse

Matt Dillon in The House that Jack Built (Zentropa)
Von Trier and Matt Dillon J’accuse satire.

Danish prankster Lars Von Trier’s day has come. His career-long attempt at dismantling film art finally matches the cultural moment in The House That Jack Built. Von Trier taints a foundational nursery rhyme — debasing its formerly innocent traditions — which leads to his most potent spiritual commentary.

Matt Dillon portrays Jack, a design engineer who imagines himself an architect; he’s really a serial killer who uses all his amassed corpses to construct a charnel house. This obscene construction (it’s a George Grosz version of a kid’s backyard bounce house) pays tribute to mankind’s ugliest thoughts and savage, brutish nature.

Von Trier’s plot enumerates Jack’s murderous incidents — grisly, offensive, pedantic, whimsical, yet often funny. Dillon, looking like a wizened teen idol, gives an uncanny performance, perfecting the bland smile of an average man with a decaying soul. Jack’s a moral idiot — a fact Paul Schrader couldn’t admit about Ethan Hawke’s First Reformed protagonist.

Here’s the key: Von Trier’s latest art deconstruction targets popular film genres such as fantasy, action, and true-life movies. Critics often praise the trend for being “wicked” or “dark.” Senator Bob Dole once referred to it as “a culture of depravity.” Von Trier makes those opposing opinions merge. It’s his boldest prank. The House That Jack Built works as satire by rubbing the audience’s face in the ugliness it enjoys. This wicked dark depravity now defines our post-civilized culture.

I rejected most of Von Trier’s earlier, Brutalist films Breaking the Waves, Zentropa, Dogville, Manderlay as pseudo-profound, forced nihilist conceits. But since viciousness now pervades our culture, his method reveals the moral hypocrisy that has taken root. The prankster has become a naughty moralist.

Von Trier was banned from the Cannes Film Festival in 2011 for joking about being a Nazi, and so he must have felt triumphant pride when returning to Cannes this year, addressing the Festival’s hypocrisy with The House That Jack Built. The film is not a mea culpa but a J’acusse!

Jack’s transgressions blatantly summarize pop culture’s immoral shift. His recurring memory-image of farmers threshing a wheat field harvests an infernal legacy: films like Vengeance Is Mine, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, The Silence of the Lambs, Pulp Fiction, American Psycho, Hannibal, The Human Centipede, the Saw franchise, the bulk of David Fincher (Seven, Zodiac, Fight Club, Panic Room, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl) as well as Tarantino’s entire pseudo savvy-sadistic oeuvre. This shows wild, scary impudence. With movies like Dogville, Antichrist, and Melancholia (respectively teasing America, religion, and the apocalypse) already in his quiver, Von Trier’s audacity takes precise aim at Millennial madness.

We view Jack’s debauchery from a 360-degree moral compass that first teases, rationalizes, and then, gradually, judges. In the final sequence, when Jack encounters his hidden conscience (portrayed by German actor Bruno Ganz, of the Internet’s hilarious Hitler-conniption-fit memes), he dons a monk-like hooded robe while venturing into a version of Dante’s Hell. It deliberately evokes Alexander Sokurov’s peculiarly fairy-tale-like envisioning of Goethe’s Faust (2011). Jack’s descent into the underworld, based on self-realization, is entirely personal, an eschatological vision as was Von Trier’s Medea which combined Carl Dreyer’s The Trial of Joan of Arc with Greek myth — it’s a spiritual confrontation with barbarism,

Von Trier’s seriousness is not always credible given his bad-boy tricks (David Bowie’s “Fame” underscores a horrific post-murder racing scene). Yet he dares a spiritual vision unlike other contemporary filmmakers — those secularists who regularly indulge guilt-free violence and self-justifying revenge. The House That Jack Built prompted walk-outs at Cannes, presumably when Von Trier teased female mutilation and black-American manslaughter: Uma Thurman is featured in an early incident that flips Kill Bill; in the funniest incident, Riley Keough plays a blond bimbo whose pulchritude turns a “sow’s ear into a silk purse”; second funniest is a family picnic, complete with grumpy kids, that devolves into a shooting gallery. Each of these killing scenes is a direct challenge to current PC shibboleths.

No popular movie trend goes unscathed. A late sequence even features clips from Von Trier’s own filmography. Several art-lecture digressions, including asides contrasting German Stuka dive-bombers and Albert Speer, genre paintings and ruin porn, are like Godard parodies — or half-baked ideas Von Trier refused to trim. Osy Ikhile, as the black-American G.I., invokes Full Metal Jacket, plus the lingering menace of Kubrick’s cynicism that has infected generations of adolescents. Jack also mocks generational prophet Bob Dylan, whose “Subterranean Homesick Blues” music video becomes part of Von Trier’s mischief.

In a year when only a few movies (Vox Lux, Mom and Dad, The Misandrists) see through the morass of spiritual emptiness as film art should, Von Trier is not above confusion. He also contradicts himself, sounding off “You kill art by imposing your moral rules” and “Religion has ruined human beings.” He may really mean that dishonest art has ruined culture. The House That Jack Built isn’t entirely likable, but, as civilization crumbles, Von Trier’s nervy provocation has got an undeniable point.

Editor’s Note: This article has been emended since its original publication.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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