‘The House That Jack Built: Director’s Cut’ is More Subversive Than Shocking

The House That Jack Built poster

“Wanting people to listen, you can’t just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you’ll notice you’ve got their strict attention.”

-John Doe from “Seven”

Lars Von Trier loves getting our strict attention too, and he does this yet again with “The House That Jack Built” which stars Matt Dillon as a serial killer. On November 28, 2018, IFC Films presented his director’s cut for one night only, and the advertisements boasted of how over 100 people walked out of it at Cannes, and that those who stayed gave it a 10-minute standing ovation. Give IFC some credit as they have seized upon the film’s controversy to great effect. they are showing Von Trier’s cut before releasing an R-rated version in December, and the advertisements make it clear how this version may not be your cup of tea. As for us proud Von Trier veterans, we know exactly what we are in for. Or do we?

What surprised me most about this cut of “The House That Jack Built,” is that it is nowhere as shocking as I was led to believe. In fact, I found the violence at times rather tame especially compared to the scenes of mutilation in “Antichrist.” This is in many ways the result of many people writing about the movie’s most graphic scenes in scorching detail from one article to the next, but we are also living through a tumultuous time where few things can shock us the way they used to. Or perhaps the images our minds generate will always come across as more shocking than what any filmmaker can put on the silver screen.

The violence shown is extremely brutal and very bloody, and what Jack does with the bodies is just as disturbing. But Von Trier keeps us at a distance from the action to where we are fully in Jack’s mindset, treating his soon to be murdered victims as parts of major work of art. Many may cringe at the images Von Trier thrusts upon us with a twisted glee, but in the end, this is only a movie, not real life.

The movie is constructed of five episodes, each of which shows Jack murdering one or more people and it takes place over 12 years in Washington State. Each murder serves to illustrate Jack’s development as a serial killer, one with a serious case of OCD. And throughout we hear him having a conversation with a man named Verge (played by Bruno Ganz) about the murders he has gotten away with, and their talks take many twist and turns as it leads to a grand finale in one of the darkest places on earth.

The first chapter entitled “1st Incident” has Jack picking up a stranded motorist (played by Uma Thurman) who proceeds to taunt him by saying he might be a serial killer, and it serves to set up an ironic tone which will dominate much of the movie. It’s almost impossible to take things seriously as Von Trier is practically begging us to root for Jack to kill her as she cannot shut her mouth and even goes as far to say where he can bury her body.

Another surprising thing about Von Trier’s serial killer film is that it’s actually quite funny. This is clearly the case in the “2nd Incident” in which Jack attempts to con his way into the home of another woman (played by Siobhan Fallon Hogan, whose expressions are priceless) in a pathetic fashion. He first tries to pass himself off as a policeman, but his explanations for why he doesn’t have a badge on him are just hopeless, and yet he does not give up easily. And thanks to his OCD, he is convinced he has left evidence of her murder to where he keeps going in and out of the house several times.

The violence does become even more brutal and nihilistic as “The House That Jack Built” goes on, and men, women, children and animals are never spared from this wrath. I’m not going to bother going into specific descriptions as, again, the gory details have already been written about in various articles, but I will say this movie is not shock for shock’s sake. If you want that, check out the god-awful “Human Centipede 3.”

Von Trier has said in interviews how he was inspired by “the idea that life is evil and soulless” as well as the rise of Donald Trump. Indeed, many live in anxious uncertainty as the former reality television show host never ceases to give us one headache after another, and seeing him and his cronies (several of whom have since been indicted) threatens to make us apathetic to his inescapable crimes. Jack exists in a world too apathetic to realize the horrible things he is doing to others, and he keeps getting away with murder as a result.

A key scene for me was when Jack corners his girlfriend (played by Riley Keough) who slowly realizes who he really is. She screams for help, and Jack does the same in a mocking fashion. When he opens a window and cries to anyone who can hear how “nobody wants to help,” this helps illustrate just how apathetic the world is to the cries of someone in danger. If there are people willing to help someone, none of them are in a close enough vicinity to do so. If they are, they must have their own problems to deal with.

Another key subject involves art and what constitutes the greatest works of it. Neither Jack or Verge can come to a consensus of what makes great art as Verge believes you cannot have any without love as love, like intimacy, is an art unto itself. Jack, however, sees violence as playing a huge part in art and, he sees the murders he has committed as being more creatively stimulating for him than building a house.

David Bowie’s song “Fame” is played many times throughout, and I kept wondering why. Well, let’s look at the first set of lyrics:

“Fame makes a man take things over

Fame lets him loose, hard to swallow

Fame puts you there where things are hollow (fame)

Fame, it’s not your brain, it’s just the flame

That burns your change to keep you insane (fame).”

Is Von Trier attempting to say something about fame? Perhaps. Jack looks to gain infamy by sending photographs of his corpses to the local newspaper under the name of “Mr. Sophistication,” and they do not go unrecognized by the general public. But whether Jack is a serial killer or a singing star, his life is so cut off from others, and his existence will always be a hollow one. Regardless of how things end up for Jack, any fame he could hope to have will not succeed in making his life different.

There is also a moment where Von Trier features clips of his past movies like “Breaking the Waves,” “Dancer in the Dark,” “Antichrist” and “Melancholia” among others as Jack says the following:

“Some people claim that the atrocities we commit in our fiction are those inner desires which we cannot commit in our controlled civilization, so they’re expressed instead through our art. I don’t agree. I believe Heaven and Hell are one and the same. The soul belongs to Heaven and the body to Hell.”

Is Von Trier explaining how he works or apologizing for the crazy things he has brought to the silver screen? Indeed, the realm of art and fiction are places where we can exorcise our darkest thoughts and angriest emotions, and I for one will always be thankful for this. For the Danish filmmaker, it’s a must as he continues to deal with endless phobias and clinical depression, and he always looks to be exorcising some malady he could do without. But with Jack, he is dealing with a character who is a soulless vessel who can no longer see the line between right and wrong or fact and fiction, so maybe the filmmaker is wondering if he truly has gone too far.

How long have we been watching Matt Dillon onscreen? Have we seen him play a role like this before? If so, none quickly comes to mind. He is in just about every frame of this 155-minute movie, and he gives a frighteningly authentic portrayal of a serial killer at their most banal. Dillon makes Jack into the same kind of killer John Doe described himself as in “Seven” in that he is not special and has never been extraordinary, and it’s fascinating to see the actor refusing any opportunity to chew the scenery as many others would. He mines the role for all its pathos and morbid black humor, and it’s one of the best performances I have seen in a movie this year. Having said that, it is highly unlikely will receive an Oscar nomination. Need I say why?

“The House That Jack Built” will not go down as one of my most favorite Von Trier movies as it does drag on for far too long, but it is as fascinating as any he has previously made. There is much more to this cinematic experience than you will see at its gory surface, and you will ponder the many things Von Trier has dared you to explore on a deeper level.

I am glad Von Trier is still making movies as we need filmmakers willing to push the envelope and unsettle us in an effort to get us to see a bigger truth we too often turn away from. Say what you will of him as a person, but I always look forward to what his movies. As much as he may shock you, he also gets you to think. Right now, there are only so many filmmakers who can do that.

Still, I have a feeling the upcoming R-rated version will be far more shocking. The MPAA will most likely censor the movie’s most graphic moments to where our imaginations may have to spell out what we think we saw. In the process of trying to protect American audiences, this archaic body usually, and thoughtlessly, makes a movie more traumatic than anyone intended it to be. I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Advertisements

‘The Reader’ Features a Brilliant and Galvanizing Performance from Kate Winslet

The Reader movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008.

The Reader” has been getting mixed reviews, and I can’t understand why. I was expecting a good movie with great performances when I went in to see it, but I ended up getting a lot more than that. My father was with me when I saw the movie, and he confirmed it was astonishingly faithful to the book it was based on. Indeed, “The Reader” is an emotionally devastating journey through the beginning of an affair between a young student and an older woman, and of the aftermath it lays on both of them. Every single performance here is extraordinary, particularly the one given by Kate Winslet. If she does indeed get nominated for this movie or “Revolutionary Road,” she will certainly deserve the Oscar this time around.

Winslet plays Hanna Schmitz who works as a ticket taker for the local trains going in and out of the town, and she encounters young Michael Berg (David Kross) who is sick and depressed. She takes care of him and even walks him home. Michael later returns to where she lives to thank her for what she did, and from there the two have a secret affair which involves both sex and reading. Hanna asks Michael to read to her before they make love, and he does so with tremendous enthusiasm to say the least. This deepens their relationship even while it remains a secret between the two of them, and it lasts for several months.

Part of the movie’s success in affecting you may depend on how much of yourself you see in the character of Michael Berg. Many of us would not like to remember ourselves as ever being weak, but something deep in our subconscious would certainly have entertained the idea of having an affair with an older woman, let alone Kate Winslet. As a teenager, your hormones are jumping up and down on an ever-expanding trampoline in the realm of puberty, so thinking about something other than girls will be a bit challenging. All the same, common sense might kick in somewhere which can, and should, stop us from being involved in such a relationship.

In many ways, “The Reader” is an argument against this kind of a relationship as this one elicits even more heartache, confusion, and emotional scars which can last a lifetime. They say the first love is always the hardest because of the eventual break up which hurts like a son of a bitch. Clearly, there are not many break ups or separations which can hurt as much as the one experienced by Michael and Hanna.

2008 may be remembered as the year of Batman, the late Heath Ledger, Robert Downey Jr. and many other things. I do hope it is also known as the year of Winslet. On top of “The Reader,” she also has “Revolutionary Road” coming up which is directed by her husband Sam Mendes. She needn’t have been nominated for an Oscar five times already to convince us of what a superb actress she is. Winslet manages to do many things I cannot see another actress doing as effectively, and she superbly handles the aging of her character without overdoing it or falling into some caricature of an elderly person we may have preconceptions of. Winslet immerses herself into this role ever so fearlessly, and she gives us one of the most compelling and emotionally devastating performances of the year.

Winslet also does something which at first would seem unthinkable and horrifying; she gives a human face to the SS officers who were later prosecuted for their role in the murder of millions of Jews during the Holocaust. From a distance, we would simply shout down at these people because of the horrible things they have done. Winslet wisely does not make us sympathize with what her character has been through, but she makes us see Hanna’s pain throughout the trial as she is caught up in a situation she does not entirely understand. This later leads to a revelation about her which I will not reveal as it will destroy the mystery of her character for the audience this movie deserves. But this secret is something Hanna feels much more ashamed of than her role as an SS officer.

It also brings up an interesting point worth dwelling on. These officers are being prosecuted for their role in the worst kind of atrocity, and probably rightly so. I say probably because in the end, these are just soldiers who were ordered to do their jobs by a genocidal maniac named Adolf Hitler. As history shows, the hierarchy of an evil or highly immoral regime seems to get off somewhat easier than the soldiers whom, whether we agree with their actions or not, were simply doing the job they were commanded to do. For them to simply not do their duties would have led to their deaths by a simple bullet in the head. Obviously, the atrocity of the Holocaust brought on a strong need for revenge in its aftermath, and prosecutors went after perhaps the only ones who could be easily prosecuted as Hitler killed himself before he could ever be captured. While I watched the movie, my dad leaned over to me and said, “Just remember this when they prosecute those soldiers from Abu Ghraib and not Donald Rumsfeld.”

As much as “The Reader” may seem like the Kate Winslet show, there are many other performances to admire other than hers. The one performance which might come across as the most underrated is the one given by David Kross as the young Michael Berg. Throughout all the scenes he has with Kate, he more than holds his own with her as he conveys the hell of an emotional turmoil he goes through both as a teenager, and later as an adult. In retrospect, Kross has the hardest role in the movie as he has to convey many things about his character without saying a word. We know why Michael is going through so many conflicting emotions, but the characters around him don’t know this. Furthermore, they cannot know as this would implicate Michael in a situation he will not ever be able to escape from. I have not heard of Kross before this movie, and I am interested to see how he got the role as his performance is nothing short of astonishing.

And of course, we have the great Ralph Fiennes as the adult Michael Berg, and he conveys how the character never moved on fully from the affair he had so many years ago. Fiennes portrays him as a man who knows he is more emotionally distant from people than anyone should be, and he is aided by Kross’ performance as we see why this is the case.

Director Stephen Daldry previously directed the film adaptation of “The Hours” with Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore. Along with “The Reader,” he seems to be working with a recurring theme of women caught up in a world they are desperate to escape from. Even if such an escape lasts only a brief moment, they are caught up in a world not necessarily of their own making, and it threatens to kill their soul completely. Daldry certainly isn’t afraid to venture into emotionally charged material, or of material many will simply view as depressing.

“The Reader” is pretty certain at this point to have a place on my list of the best movies of 2008, and not just for the brilliant performance given by Kate Winslet.

* * * * out of * * * *

IFC Debuts First Trailer for Lars Von Trier’s ‘The House That Jack Built’

The House That Jack Built poster

For years Lars Von Trier was considered persona non grata at the Cannes Film Festival, but in 2018 he returned to it with a vengeance. His latest film, “The House That Jack Built,” premiered there recently, and it was reported that a hundred people walked out of the screening in utter disgust. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Von Trier film if it didn’t cause some strong visceral reaction, let alone polarize the first audience to witness it. Now, those of us who were not lucky to go to Cannes this year get to watch the first trailer for “The House That Jack Built,” and it is made clear right away how this film is not at all for the faint of heart.

The trailer opens with Jack (Matt Dillon), an unrepentant serial killer, talking with Verge (Bruno Ganz) who I can only assume is a therapist of some kind. In their conversation, Jack assumes there are rules he must follow, but Verge assures him this is not the case but also says “don’t believe you’re going to tell me something I haven’t heard before.” But after I watched this trailer, I wondered if this would be the case. Many of us have grown up on serial killer movies like “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Seven” and “Copycat,” but this one seems a bit different and far more visceral than any I have seen in the past.

We see Jack pick up a lady played by Uma Thurman whose car has broken down. She holds a broken car jack in her hands, and she puts it down beside Jack once she gets in his car. From there, she talks openly about how she might have made a mistake getting into Jack’s car as he may very well be a serial killer. This reminded me of when a friend of mine shared his experience of watching “Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood” and of a particular female character who was there for the audience to utterly hate. When it looked like Jason was ready to kill her, my friend told me the audience started a chant of “kill the bitch, kill the bitch, kill the bitch,” and it looks like Von Trier is going for the same thing here as Thurman is just asking for Dillon to bash her head in with that car jack.

This trailer is filled with enough snippets to inform you “The House That Jack Built” will be an especially grisly adventure as Jack drags Thurman’s corpse into what looks like his secret lair, tortures another lady played by Riley Keough to where she screams helplessly, and takes aim at a pair of children and their mother. It should be clear before even watching this trailer that Von Trier is a filmmaker who never plays it safe, but those who are unware of this will be made very aware long before the last image.

For myself, there a couple of moments which stand out unforgettably. One is when Jack looks out the window of an apartment and yells how “nobody wants to help,” and the camera zooms out to where it looks like not a human being is in sight. The other comes when Jack says the following:

“Some people claim that the atrocities we commit in our fiction are those inner desires we cannot commit in our controlled civilization, so they are expressed instead through our art. I don’t agree. I believe heaven and hell are one and the same. The soul belongs to heaven and the body to hell.”

The way I see it, everyone has a dark side, and the world of art allows us to exorcise our most shameful desires. With “The House That Jack Built,” Von Trier gives us an individual who cannot separate the line between what is real and what is not, let alone fact and fiction. I have been a big admirer of this filmmaker since being introduced to his work through “Breaking the Waves,” and I cannot wait to see what he has in store for us here.

Please feel free to check out the trailer below at your own risk.