What is the point of film? What is the purpose of art? What makes something art? Where is the line between arthouse films and blockbusters? These polarizing and impossible questions seem to get films about these ideas every year. This year’s entry into the What-Is-Art cinematic universe is Lars Von Trier’s polarizing horror The House That Jack Built.
The film is about a murder and five ‘incidents’ the murderer retells from his life to Virgil as they make their way down the circles of Hell, Dante style. It says as much about Jack’s character, excellently played by Matt Dillon, as it does about von Trier and how he sees himself, or how he thinks others see him as a filmmaker. It may seem like an over-the-top self-nod for von Trier to make a film about a mass murderer who creates an art installation style ‘house’ out of dead bodies, and that is because it is. What it says about von Trier to frame this egomaniac, narcissistic character to have any kind of virtuous qualities is laughable. Its exploration and notion that any of this can be art is problematic altogether.
The director is well known for unsettling audiences, so it was surprising to me to see how people were so surprised about the film, or surprised about the walkouts that it caused. You walk into a von Trier film, you know what to expect, the same way you walk into a Marvel film and know what to expect. The House That Jack Built is certainly a visual and acting force. Dillon is memorable and stays with you long after the film ends. The editing and style feel just as unsettling and jarring as the frame’s content. Where I got lost, however, is the why. We see the gratuitous elements, but it seems as if von Trier never stopped to ask why, or maybe he did, but that was left on the cutting room floor and forgotten about.
The film swings so far into nihilism, it almost contradicts itself. A black comedy, yet, one of the most unempathetic and confusing characters ever. It would be one thing for a film to show children being shot in the head at a picnic, but it is another thing for your theater to break out laughing at it.
Film means to generate a reaction or stir up emotions, but unlike emotionally rocking masterpieces from this year, like Hirokazu Koreeda’s Shoplifters or even Jason Reitman’s underrated Tully, von Trier’s The House That Jack Built feels like it knows it is devoid of meaning and wants to emphasize that point. That gets old. Quick. As a viewer, you are left completely out in the cold with nothing and nowhere to grab onto, leaving you to watching almost three hours of masturbatory ‘ah-a’s’ and ‘see what I did there’s’.
The House That Jack Built left me with a bitter taste in my mouth and a throbbing headache for hours, but that seemed to be its only point. It feels weird to call this film a success because every second of it feels wrong, but it does what it wants very, very well. The self-gratification is obscene and obtrusive from pulling any substance or worth from the film, which is frustrating because there are qualities to really love here.
Among notable ‘feel-good’s’, or nice-core films this year—like Paddington 2, Won’t You Be My Neighbor—The House That Jack Built is 2018’s strongest antithesis to these movies yet. Devoid of love, empathy, or feeling, it is the cold calculated creation of someone so distanced from the emotional core of cinema, it almost makes this film a masterpiece. Almost.
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