Few recent films have been preceded by as much notoriety as The House That Jack Built, Lars Von Trier’s riposte to being declared persona non grata at Cannes following his comments about Nazism during the press session for Melancholia. Like Nymphomanic, this is effectively an anthology film, taking the audience through episodes in the life and work of Jack, a serial killer played by Matt Dillon, operating in the Pacific Northwest during the 1970s and 1980s. Each of these episodes involves Jack adding more victims to his body stash, which he keeps in a walk-in freezer near his apartment complex. For all the shock value that suggests, however, The House That Jack Built is probably closer to John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer than the kinds of extreme horror that have become possible in the post-censorship era, opting for the same banality and drabness, while interspersing it with a series of lugubrious and interminable reflections on aesthetics.
From the outset, the time period and location of Jack’s activities immediately invokes the true crime canon, and the ways in which the true crime canon has percolated into the present, especially as it was formulated by Ann Rule, who identified the Pacific Northwest of the 70s and 80s as the matrix from which discourse around serial killers and male psychopathy first emerged. During this period in American history, white masculine authority was challenged as never before by the rise of liberal attitudes towards race, gender and sexuality in the wake of the Second World War. Impulses that had been contained or legitimised by white patriarchy were unleashed, and enabled by a new level of urban sprawl, along with a population that was not yet attuned to the signs or symptoms of the classic serial killer profile. It’s no surprise, then, that the serial killer has become such a powerful cultural figure in the present, where it is often framed as a precursor to the white terrorism that casts such a powerful hold over our world, since the last yen years have seen some of the most convulsive upheavals in white masculinity since the post-war period, with many right-wing commentators often directly invoking psychopaths as their personal icons.
In this way, the psychopath, or serial killer, has come to stand for the finitude of the white male voice as a point of stability, security and consensus within American society, with the most intractable of white male voices tending to gravitate towards the figure of the psychopath, or serial killer, as matter of course. In doing so, they suggest an inherent connection between whiteness and psychopathy that is very much the subject matter of The House That Jack Built. No doubt, not all serial killers are white, while being white doesn’t make you a serial killer. Similarly, many serial killers operate outside of any explicitly white agenda, although many are also fascinated by Hitler and fixated with white supremacy. However, most of the key symptoms of psychopathy – especially its delusions of grandeur and obscene entitlement – can only really flourish in a systematic way, and can only be concealed and normalised, through the privileges arrogated by whiteness to begin with. For that reason, The House that Jack Built often plays as a period piece about the role of psychopathy in white discourse today, splitting the difference between past and present to reveal the extent to which current white identity politics is drawn from this formative moment in the evolution of the serial killer as a cultural, criminological and cinematic figure.
This is especially clear in the first episode of the film, which follows Jack as he encounters a woman, played by Uma Thurman, whose car has broken down. One of the big things that comes out of reading true crime is just how many victims were caught unawares by serial killers because they weren’t aware of the profile, or didn’t know how to “read” behaviours that have become instantly recognisable today. In fact, true crime literature often plays as a way of correcting this lack of knowledge, and helping members of the public to not only recognise psychological traits, but forms of narrative structure, that are likely to betoken the presence of a psychopath or serial killer. By contrast, Jack’s first victim here seems more au fait with serial killer narratology than even the most meticulous of modern true crime fans, taunting him with all the ways in which his behavior conforms to that of a serial killer, as well as the narrative inevitability of his murdering her and then disposing of her corpse.
While that’s just what Jack ends up doing, this missive from the woker true crime future is enough to unsettle his character for the rest of the film – or rather to prevent his character ever developing or emerging in a systematic or consistent way. Rather, Jack presents more as a figure than a character, caught between the white anxieties of the classic serial killer period and the white anxieties of the present, which is perhaps why he often plays as an amalgam of many of the most iconic serial killers as well. While Ted Bundy and Gary Ridgway are clear points of reference, the film is full of allusions to other psychopaths who used murder to assuage their egos during this particular moment in time, to the point where Jack often plays as the cumulative impact of serial killer discourse on the present moment, while also embedding the Hollywood fascination with period and regionalist American textures within a nostalgic fixation for the assured white voice that he embodies. As a result, The House That Jack Built often plays as a deconstruction of the American nostalgia pieces that have become so prevalent in recent years, suggesting that their ultimate fascination is this period in the 70s and 80s when the rise of the serial killer translated the shifts in the post-war period into gestures of such self-aggrandising psychopathic specatcle that they required decades of cinema to even start processing them.
The House That Jack Built thus falls into a lineage of Von Trier films that are both set and not set in America, situating us within a regionalist milieu that is clearly discorrelated from the way regionalist texture tends to be represented within American cinema itself. Within this anonymous space that is supposed to be the Pacific Northwest, but looks more like rural Denmark, Jack’s only hold on reality, and on himself, is the house that he is building to command this landscape, as well as the broader architectural practice that it is designed to crown. It emerges early on, however, that Jack is a failed architect, in both his personal and professional life, and that he has never been able to complete this house, despite multiple blueprints and attempts. In order to embody the security, stability and sanctity of the middle-class home, he therefore has to opt for another form of architecture, using his victims as literal building blocks for the corpse-house that he constructs at the end of the fifth episode. For Jack, this house isn’t simply a physical comfort, but a point from which to stabilise the authority of his own voice, allowing him to style himself as “Mr. Sophistication” in his taunting letters to media, and to pronounce his intellectual superiority to his victims and pursuers whenever they are on the cusp of being incorporated into his morbid edifice.
Even more dramatically, Jack’s house allows him to affirm his connection with God, “the architect of the whole universe,” and to use God as a witness to the sanctity of his own voice as a white male speaker. More bluntly, this carceral structure allows Jack to speak as God whenever he is in it or around it, meaning that his language tends to fall into three major categories throughout the film. First, there are revelatory-styled pronouncements, usually focused upon his own voice, or the way other voices need to be subordinated to his own (“There’s a time to speak and a time to be quiet.”) Then, there are mansplainy pronouncements, in which he condenses nuggets of knowledge to aphoristic observations (“The art of engineering is first and foremost about statics”). Finally, there are what might be termed artistic, or auteurist, pronouncements, in which Jack devolves into laborious and tortured asides about all manner of “erudite” subjects, to explain his crimes and personality.
All three of these types of speech prevent The House That Jack Built ever exhibiting dialogue per se, suggesting a voice that is too insular and self-absorbed to even acknowledge the existence of the outside world, let alone other voices. In order to prevent the film being a total monologue, Von Trier introduces an interlocutor, who alternatively questions Jack about his motivations, and congratulates him on his achievements: “Bravo Jack, you certainly are clever, just like all the criminals.” After a while, we learn that this speaker is Virgil, played by Bruno Ganz, and is accompanying Jack through his crimes much as Virgil accompanies Dante through the Inferno in the first volume of the Divine Comedy. Indeed, in the final section of the film, titled Katabasis, Virgin does lead Jack to Hell, but before that he exists much as Virgil does in the Divine Comedy – namely, as a projection of the author, or auteur, whose presence testifies to the quasi-divinity of his voice, and the elevation of his work to a third testament, so singular and revelatory is the tenor and intensity of its vision.
Of course, Virgil takes on a different inflection here due to the presence of Ganz, whose most famous role is still that of Adolf Hitler in Downfall, along with his digital afterlife as the star actor in the Hitler memes that continue to be remediated in the online world. Between those two points, an unusual tonality emerges that makes it impossible to take the film seriously, even as the film strains to see how seriously it can possibly take itself. As a projection of Jack, Virgil can’t possibly affirm or negate him in any meaningful way, beyond the sheer fact of his existence as a form of affirmation, meaning that their conversations feel strangely impotent and irrelevant to the film as a whole. However, as an embodiment of the Nazi discourse that caused Von Trier such problems at Cannes, Virgil’s presence here also can’t be denied either, meaning that the film seems both indifferent to Ganz and viscerally dependent upon him for its sense of self-worth and meaning. As a result, The House That Jack Built oscillates quite vertiginously between indifference and self-pity, always too ridiculous to be taken seriously, but never seriously engaging with its own comedy either, to instead occupy a zone that feels completely continuous with the provocateur role promulgated by Von Trier at Cannes, rather than revising or remediating it.
While that role might have seemed scandalous at the press conference, it becomes bloated and absurd when reframed as an auteurist gesture, as it is here. So serious that it is absurd, the film is always on the verge of turning in on itself, or revealing its inherent absurdity, even or especially when Von Trier inserts violence to shock the audience out of the imminent comic tone. In the end, however, both parody and seriousness imply the presence of an audience, but the most striking feature of The House That Jack Built is that it doesn’t really need or want an audience, let alone court or flatter an audience, which is perhaps why early film festival crowds were so scandalised by it. Instead, Jack, and Von Trier, grow more insular, monadic and oneiric as the film proceeds, as if presenting us with the accumulated baggage of the same entitlement that took place at Cannes, without ever really processing it or reflecting upon it. For all the violence and gore, what’s really shocking is that this doesn’t appear to be playing out for shock value, but purely for Von Trier’s own benefit, or Jack’s own benefit – the two amount to the same thing – as a way of expunging a world that isn’t prepared to take anything they say on face value, or as an auteurist flourish.
In other words, The House That Jack Built is deeply hostile, suspicious and resentful of even a potential audience, closing itself off to the viewer from the moment that it begins, and retreating into an even deeper and more sullen silence as it proceeds. As the figures of auteur and serial killer converge, they diminish each other, producing a bland middle ground where mansplaining seems to be the only aesthetic option left to Von Trier, who has never been more self-pitying and pontificating than he is here. Through one endless aside after another, Jack explains himself, and his unique perspective, over and over and over again, until the pleasure of expounding upon his crimes eclipses the pleasures he takes in the crimes themselves. These cutaways are the reason the film is so long, and must amount to at least forty-five minutes of the total running time, as Jack starts to spool off into areas that are so abstruse and uninteresting that the point of the aside must for him to simply talk because he can, because he has a captive audience, because he likes the power that it brings. In the end, this was what really motivated Von Trier’s “gaffe” at Cannes, which didn’t seem genuinely oblivious in the way, say, that David Lynch or Werner Herzog can present in interviews, but instead felt like just this kind of power trip – a delight in provoking a progressive audience, despite the fact that this audience had helped foster his entire career.
This pontification culminates with Jack expounding upon the artistic power of decay, as he intercuts harrowing footage of concentration camps with flashes from Nymphomania and Melancholia. It’s a bit of a sad way to see these two films reimagined, just as this sequence is a bit of a silly way for Von Trier to respond to the Cannes incident. For all the shock value of the images, and the apocalyptic sweep of the sequence, I felt as if I was in the presence of an artist who couldn’t cope with his voice being challenged in even the slightest way – a banal, petty and petulant core that makes the film as a whole impossible to take seriously. Watching it, I was reminded of Bjork’s comments about Dancer in the Dark, namely that Von Trier “needs a female to provide his work soul. And he envies them and hates them for it. So he has to destroy them during the filming. And hide the evidence.” As Von Trier’s first film since The Idiots without a central female lead, The House That Jack Built often seems to lack this “work soul,” which is perhaps why it has to focus on a character who harvests and hides women in just this way, in what feels like an eerie cipher for Von Trier’s own work process. For that reason, the film, like Jack’s M.O., often feels half-formed, borderline incompetent, but also pre-emptively defensive of even the slightest criticism in ways that feel far removed from the auteurist assurance of Von Trier’s other films: “Why is it always the main’s fault, wherever you go? If one is so unfortunate to have been born male, one is also born guilty”
At times, Jack thus reminded me of Jack Torrance in The Shining, railing against a world that endlessly sets itself against him and his art, even when he repeats the same words over and over again. More generally, Jack reminded me of Jack Nicholson, and all the other figures from 70s and 80s cinema who testify to the tortured, schizoid and unbearable impact of feminism, Civil Rights and LGBT rights on the white patriarchal body. Von Trier himself is a product of this era, having been raised by hippie parents, who were apparently keen to minimise parental and paternal authority as much as possible, and whose lifestyle was explored by him in The Idiots, another reason why that earlier film feels like such a touchstone here. Yet where The Idiots was exhilarated by “spazzing,” and even saw in “spazzing” an objective correlative for the entire Dogme movement, Jack is here keen to avoid “spazzing” above all else, in what often feels like Von Trier’s efforts to ossify his career in retrospect, if only to forestall the horror of ever arriving at that fateful Cannes moment.
Unfortunately, that attitude just reinforces the self-pity of the film, which ends up playing as a sustained sulk, even or especially if Jack does finally end up in Hell. This last sequence, Katabasis, is the most spectacular part of the film, as Von Trier cycles through a series of radically incommensurate types of footage, from stylised to CGI, to hand-held speleology, to animated paintings, as if trying to change his visual field rapidly enough to elude his own voice, and the way it has imprisoned both him and Jack. By the end, however, it’s hard not to feel that the only person who finds Jack interesting is Jack himself, and that Jack is still fascinated by Jack above all, despite this spectacular closing sequence. Similarly, the film – while extremely long – feels strangely absent the moment it ends, as Von Trier himself acknowledges in the irreverent shift to “Hit the Road Jack” following the concluding image, which almost seems to dismiss the film in its wake, while also defying the audience to do so.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some genuinely suspenseful scenes here, or that Von Trier’s portrayal of serial killing is derivative or uninspired. Time and again, he evokes Jack’s own fixation with authority figures, and inability to live up to his own auteurist aspirations, in quite a powerful way, along with his perception that women are begging to be killed, and that their shared damsel in distress “act” is little more than a challenge to kill them. More powerfully, perhaps, Von Trier suggests how much of serial killing is ungainly, awkward and tedious, moving away from the twin poles that preoccupy so much true crime literature – last traces of victims, and first discoveries of their bodies – to suggest that the intervening time period is too often imbued with a sublimity that needs to be dispelled. As Michelle McNamara points out in her study of the Golden State Killer, “they lose their power when we know their face,” and we know Jack’s face from the very beginning here, meaning that his actions are never endowed with the mystique of serial killers who remain anonymous to the public at large, even if Jack manages to escape detection. Yet these moments are gradually absorbed back into Von Trier’s self-regard, as self-flagellating as it is fragile, which by the end is too exhausting and voracious to leave much room for anything else, let alone for the viewer, who is finally sidelined, an appropriate end to one of the most solipsistic films I have seen in a long time.