It’s the final day of my Halloween in December movie marathon and, in the theme of self-indulgence I decided to watch The House That Jack Built. From the controversial director Lars von Trier, this film follows the perspective of the serial killer Jack (played by Matt Dillon) as he explores the reasons behind his own cravings to kill. What the audience gets is a two and a half hour long journey into the ego of Lars von Trier- for better and for worse.
If you’re a fan of Lars von Trier, there’s probably plenty for this film to offer you- it has his classic trademarks as a director, such as intelligent references to psychological theory, mathematics, and the world beyond the silver screen. One of my favorite elements of LvT’s work is his beautiful cinematography, which is used to fantastic effect during the final arc of this movie, especially in recreating certain famous classic paintings and other artistic works. This is where the notion of “self-indulgence” starts to come into play, because around that arc, we also revisit basically every work that LvT has directed to some extent. While the philosophical debate between Jack and his guide Verge (played by Bruno Ganz) takes precedence in the earlier parts of the film, we are able to strip away that argument as Jack enters the climax of the film. If you choose to watch this film, you will see what I mean, but I do not want to be too specific here as I do encourage people to watch this movie.
But while fans of LvT’s films have plenty to appreciate, less is true for those less familiar with him and his works. That isn’t to say that there is nothing to appreciate as a newcomer, but it is definitely not the same experience without that familiarity. The tale of Jack in its initial stages at least gives a newcomer time to adjust to the type of dialogue and presentation more typical of LvT, especially as you watch Jack evolve his murder spree from simple killings to his own work of “art”, as he calls it. Escalation plays a crucial role in his development, much as escalation is a development of LvT’s own career, whether it be in disturbing content or in the quality of film he delivers over time. Whether or not that has merit is up for the viewer to decide, but it’s an examination at least being presented to you as you continue to engage with this film’s events.
I suppose that connection is part of why it’s difficult for me to heartily recommend this movie to anyone. LvT himself is a polarizing figure, and I definitely think he is a person of talent, but even I have a limit to the amount of pretentiousness and self-congratulation present in a film. Unfortunately, the amazing pieces of this movie are weighed down by just how self-involved it is, feeling at times as though you’re simply watching the director’s artistic and intellectualist self masturbating in visual form. There are plenty of works where that is part of the point, but perhaps this film just doesn’t give you enough of itself and dips too far into that territory of the self-celebration. Truly, there is plenty that this film gets right, but it also gets a lot wrong, whether it be the particulars of psychopathic tendencies and their motivations, or in just how to present itself to its own audience. This film could have been much more than its end product, but you get plenty worthwhile by the time its course has run, though some (nay, many) may disagree. It’s understandable as to why, as the auter’s medium is prone to this sort of expression and behavior. Regardless, I give this film an 8 out of 10.