Jack is an obsessive-compulsive engineer who always wanted to be an architect. He compares engineers with those who are able to read music, and architects with those who can play it. Jack does not have a full-time job because he received an important inheritance. Jack is also a serial killer who is gradually learning, crime after crime, to leave behind his OCD. Jack talks to an interlocutor lost in his conscience, named Verge, with whom he discusses the nature of art somehow, through his crimes. Jack is obviously Lars von Trier.
The House That Jack Built is a boring, desperate attempt from Lars von Trier to build an apologetic artistic statement to justify his persona. He literally invites the audience to judge Jack through his works, not his acts. This should come as no surprise after his infamous declarations on Hitler and the allegations of abuse and exploitation in his films, whereas the Danish director’s filmography is nothing short of impressive despite some divisive features.
The film is divided into five chapters (or incidents, as he calls them), and an epilogue. Each incident refers to a particular illustrative crime among his much broader killing spree, embodying a particular offense, a particular regret. One could even speculate and relate each to a certain film. Through these episodes, Jack (Matt Dillon) comes across a demanding lady facing a flat tire (Uma Thurman); he convinces a widow to let him in her house (Siobhan Fallon); he takes a woman and her two children to a hunting field (Sofie Gråbøl); he has a date at the flat of a not-so-clever woman (Riley Keough); and finally he captures a group of men to perform a ballistic experiment in his walk-in freezer.
It is pitiful to witness an otherwise resourceful director rely on grotesque explicit violence as his dominant narrative strategy. A duckling’s leg and a woman’s breasts are mutilated while alive; we see a strangulation, a hit on the head, amateur taxidermy and a number of gun wounds. The most ludicrous scene features a woman forced to have a picnic next to her just-murdered children. It is then when the voice-over literally addresses how manipulative this narrative element (violence against children) is. Von Trier wants to let the audience know he’s always been aware of his controversial storytelling tactics, as if this somehow justified his ways.
Perhaps the most shameless moment in the story is when Jack complains about men being judged as criminals since the day they’re born, while women are automatically catalogued as victims. Through his lead character, von Trier confesses he chooses women for his murders (sorry, films) because they’re better to work with, more collaborative. Needless to say this stand is shockingly tone-deaf and condescending.
There is an overall feeling of remorse in the work. The director, however, does not try to redeem himself by delivering a mature, wholesome feature but instead assembles two-and-a-half hours of continuous denial of culpability, 150 minutes of an adolescent guilt-show. Sadly enough, among this pile of trash, von Trier’s abilities manage to briefly shine through powerful, not necessarily violent visuals, a series of interesting meditations on the nature of art, and the overall strong work of the ensemble cast.
Aside from crime, Jack’s biggest passion is architecture. He builds models of what he expects will be his dream house. As his murder count increases, he starts the construction of the dwelling, but he’s never convinced and demolishes it over and over. For von Trier’s self-indulgent consciousness, this seems to be the metaphor for a noble, unfinished quest to find the true meaning of art.
The plot leads to a laughable epilogue when Jack and Verge enter Hell in a sort of Tarkovsky-inspired pilgrimage. This is the most pathetic, self-important part of the film: when the director tells us he knows true evil, that he’s experienced feelings we have not and therefore is entitled to a violent art practice.
As Jack slaughters one of his victims, he invites her to scream so she can alert the neighbours. He’s confident no one will answer, and states nobody is here to help. Lars von Trier considers himself a victim of his own virtuous, almost sacred journey through art. His latest film is a pitiful, self-referential, manipulative, unapologetic note from a man who seems to have lost what took him to the elite of filmmaking. It’s not even entertaining. This work deserves nothing but to be ignored by the audiences: it deserves silence and indifference in film festivals, it deserves failure at the commercial box office and it deserves not to be written about. Too late.