The House That Jack Built
A strange detail in the lead-up to the finale of The House That Jack Built fatally distracted me. Jack (Matt Dillon) has just gone to great lengths to secure a particular, single bullet in order to execute a line of guys tied up in a row inside a gruesome storage facility containing every corpse this serial killer has so far toted up. To get the right focal distance (note the reflexive reference to a camera lens), Jack has to force open a door to a room he – in a plot detail heavily signalled much earlier – has never been able to access. In the darkness of that room, just at the point of firing his rifle, Jack is interrupted by the now-familiar (to us) voice of a spectral visitor – “Verge” (short for Virgil), played by Bruno Ganz. Meanwhile, faceless cops – in a vague show of “suspense” rare in this movie – are in the process of breaking into the facility to nab Jack. Verge, in an inexplicable moment of empathy, counsels Jack to “follow his materials” and “build his house” at last – a structure assembled with corpses. As the cops break through the iron door and start firing (not great police procedure!), Verge and Jack slip through a hole in the floor and begin their trek along Limbo.
The detail I’m talking about: what about those poor guys tied to the bar, anxiously awaiting death? Are they spared, are they rescued, are they relieved, are they accidentally shot by cops? Although we’ve had many glimpses of their mortal agony, the film couldn’t care less about them now; they have become irrelevant. There’s a gun poked through a door, and there’s a hole in the floor letting light play on mystical water: nothing else matters at that point. It’s a fast transition to the Afterlife.
This detail made me ponder von Trier’s aesthetic – especially since Dancer in the Dark (2000), a film I greatly admire. When he first started abstracting narrative worlds in such an extreme and brutal way – filming any old landscape as “America”, or having his stars act on starkly minimal theatre-boards as the ultimate Brechtian dress-down of representational illusion – the procedure was intriguing and exciting. Why bother to “fill out” what is imaginary in the first place? Why not use bold short-cuts, strictly “notional scenes” (as Raymond Durgnat called them, après Godard), symbolic abstractions? As we’ll see, symbolic/philosophical abstraction is where The House That Jack Built really wants to go, after all.
But, long before we can get to that, we have a plot, a character, a world. Has there ever been a flimsier approximation of all that necessary “filler” than in The House That Jack Built? Nothing has any illusionistic weight in this film. Chopped up into key (I guess they’re key, or at least representative) “incidents” in the life of this dogged killer, nothing really accumulates, refers backward or forward (apart from clumsy devices like that locked storage facility door). At the end of the first murder (of Uma Thurman, given some of the worst “If you were really a serial killer …” dialogue ever devised), Jack refers to a “border” between states, territories, countries (whatever) that allows him to get away with murder (and corpse disposal). This so-called border is like a piece of sky-writing, pure rhetoric; it has no circumstantial reality, no weight in the story.
The same goes for virtually every element in the main storyline. Jack has OCD – leading to a long, long scene of him going back to the scene of Incident 2’s crime over and again, grimly played by von Trier without any feeling for potential black humour – but then, at a certain point later on, his condition just “disappears”. Hmmm. In Incident 1 just mentioned, a coda refers to a mechanic never letting on what he saw – but the mechanic is just a cipher in the tale, included once and never again. At one point, Jack is seen deciding to work on faking/mimicking emotions before a mirror, with the aid of a surreal-looking photo collection for reference – and there’s a solitary flash back to this during one of the Incidents – but we’ve already seen a relatively natural range of facial expressions in Dillon’s performance long before this supposed change or “development” in the killer’s behaviour and demeanour.
Later, the Incident-episode involving Riley Keough begins in medias res: he’s been having some relationship with her already (when, exactly? – narrative time doesn’t exist here), and it’s even something like “love”. Hard to believe! And so on, and on. All throughout, traditional plot hooks – aspects relating to danger, suspicion, the amount of dead bodies he’s accumulating, the prospect of being caught, law-enforcement agencies on his trail and tracking him down – are blithely suspended. Above all, the world that Jack inhabits has no solidity, no co-ordinates, no reality whatsoever, in national, geographic, cultural or any other terms: it’s just Jack in his van bowling down an “American” road, Jack and his victims in a few suburban or flophouse rooms and caravans, Jack in his storage facility that nobody ever notices until he personally hijacks a cop car and keeps the siren blaring and light flashing outside his lair. And it’s not all “inside the mind of the killer”, either, à la Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (the novel more than its film adaptations) – that alibi doesn’t fit to explain the rampant disconnection between elements. It’s just, and only, the film-fragments that von Trier strictly needs to string this contraption together, to “build his house”. But let’s suspend the temptation to “projective interpretation” for a few minutes longer, and stick with the aesthetics for the time being.
Auto-critique: am I being unfair? (Note: having started watched the complete Fanny and Alexander  by Ingmar Bergman the following day, I’m a little bit intoxicated by the intricate way a great filmmaker can conjure a complex fictive world.) Von Trier is not interested in realism – this much is clear. He’s using ellipsis, fragmentation, stylisation, distanciation – just as Jon Jost did in his serial killer portrait Last Chants for a Slow Dance (1977), and as Maurice Pialat would surely have done if he had lived to re-realise his abandoned 1977 project The Murderers (made by Patrick Grandperret in 2005). OK. But why, then, do the basic staging and shooting procedures for the bulk of the film remain stolidly realistic/naturalistic, as do almost all the acting performances (Ganz excepted)? In fact, this strikes me as a sign of von Trier’s dreadful laziness as a director: it’s not as awful here as in the unbearable Melancholia (2011), but his default recourse to handheld camerawork, jump-cutting and seemingly absent or semi-improvised scene-blocking kills all mise en scène stone dead. There are striking images (the more pictorial-painterly, the better), some strong cuts, some crazy sound-design atmospherics (that buzzing sound of souls in the torment of Hell!) – but no “bodies in space” in any engaging or pleasing way.
Yes, I know that The House That Jack Built – and most von Trier, period – is not aiming to “please” anyone terribly much. It’s meant as a provocation – on an ascending scale of provocations across the director’s career, as his public persona rises ever more to the occasion of providing the worst that the public (including its most unsympathetic, unforgiving segment) expects of him. So, I take on board the basic “dare” of this project: to “stick with” a serial killer – to empathise, paradoxically, with a psychopath incapable of empathy – and to treat him (in the director’s words to Cahiers du cinéma) as someone who “has a life, a soul – just like the rest of us”. I’m willing to put up with the film’s wilfully sadistic element (indulged in some scenes, mercifully skipped over in others – as if von Trier himself was undecided or even squeamish about the application of this template). I accept (provisionally!) the “murderous crime as art” theme, familiar from many a B movie, and here rather wonkily rigged up through the link to architecture and its history (cathedrals, etc) – another awkward disconnection or mismatch of levels in the film’s nominal world. And I’m even willing to overlook the patent red-rag-to-a-critical-bull of the film’s flirtation with the ideology of Nazi “perfection” (Albert Speer, the extermination camps, etc) as a way of characterising Jack’s “sublime madness” – and its fleeting montage-link to von Trier’s own oeuvre-in-review. Other commentators (from The Guardian to Positif), I am well aware, are happy to stick their “woke”-knives in at that level, and leave the matter be. But, to be fair, The House That Jack Built – which is rather better than anything von Trier has made since The Five Obstructions (2003) and The Boss of It All (2006) – has, I believe, something else on its mind beyond the usual bad-boy moves.
Is it just gamesmanship or oneupmanship that pushes von Trier, here, to anticipate and include in his filmic text some of the critiques he is most likely to receive? Why are the victims female? Why are they so stupid? What’s all this stuff about the beauty of perfect, rational construction? – all of these doubts are spoken aloud in the film and, at times (confusingly), they even seem to alter the course of its overall narration, as when Jack suddenly switches from targeting women to setting his sights on the extermination of all (any) men, or humankind in general. (Following the lead of demon-angel Zoë Lund in Ms .45, perhaps!) But the stakes are higher than polemical frivolity or simply stirring public controversy in the bogus name of “free speech”.
In The House That Jack Built, von Trier aspires – more than ever, although it has always been a tendency in his work from its earliest days – to a fully allegorical, almost medieval, quasi-Biblical form of narrative cinema: the type of sparse, spare construction that Erich Auerbach patiently elaborates (in relation to writing and literature) in the early chapters of his masterly Mimesis (1946). Von Trier’s attraction to this form takes a new turn in The House That Jack Built, because the film is constructed – or tries very hard to construct itself – as a kind of agora, a public debate, an open argument between life-world, philosophical positions. It is certainly intriguing to note this unusual trend to staged-conceptual-dialogue in a very diverse range of recent films, working at various levels: José Luis Guerin’s The Academy of Muses (2015), the Canadian oddity My Thesis Film (2018) and Joseph Kahn’s wonderful rap-battle special, Bodied (2017).
There’s no doubt that where the film arrives to – over a rocky plunge down to the fires of Hades! – is where its best elements have been taking us, all along. The rhetorical framework of the aural flashback – Jack’s dialogue with Verge – contains its best dialogue, its best direction (in a beyond-strict-mise en scène sense), and its best acting: Ganz is particularly good in a role that demands the use of solely voice for five-sixths of his performance time. Verge mocks, queries, counters Jack’s psychopathic visions at (almost) every turn – while also confessing himself intrigued, drawn, even swayed for a second or two (hence his weird buddy-exhortation to Jack to “build his house” in the penultimate scene).
That said, there are, shall we say, lingering semantic problems that bug me in this film. I react badly to the evident dissociation between von Trier’s “committed” use of a generic-trash format – the serial killer thriller – and his quite obsequious genuflections, throughout, to High Art: Goethe, great paintings, poetry, classical music, all the rest of it. My objection is not to this art in itself – I love some of it, too – but in the loading that the film’s “argument” gives it: after all, Virgil’s case on behalf of Love, Truth, Beauty, etc, rests almost entirely on these references (rather than to, say, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer [1986/1990]!). Robert Bresson did not stumble on this problem in making his serial killer movie, L’Argent (1983) – every Great Director should! – largely because he was never as grandly pretentious (or obvious) in his dramatic/conceptual design as von Trier has often been.
I also found the cinephile references, inter alia, incoherent: alright, so there’s a twist on Ganz-the-Angel from Wings of Desire (1987), but the “Mr Sophistication” tag from The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976/1978)? I don’t get it – and I suspect von Trier doesn’t, either.
© Adrian Martin 16 December 2018