‘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 * * * *

Witness Mickey Rourke’s Career Resurrection in ‘The Wrestler’

untitled

The Wrestler” is kind of a cross between “Rocky” and “Raging Bull” in that it deals with a man looking to continue making a name for himself long after his five minutes of fame, and who seems to be more at home in the ring than outside of it. Darren Aronofsky films this movie with a rough edge, and he doesn’t hide away from the harsh reality Randy “The Ram” Robinson, played by Mickey Rourke, and the rest of the characters inhabit. It also marks another in a long line of movies with characters hanging on by a little thread to their financial existence.

After one of his more vicious fights involving staple guns and barbed wire among other things (there is no flinching on the details here), Randy suffers a serious heart attack and later finds himself waking up in a hospital bed after an emergency bypass surgery. The doctor tells him that to wrestle again will kill him, and he is forced into retirement and ends up finding work at the deli counter of a local supermarket for whatever hours he can get. Despite his fame and the attention he gets in his trailer park home from the kids who live there, Randy’s life is a lonely one, and he has practically no close personal connections to lean on.

What goes on from there might seem predictable, but this is not your typical redemption story with everything turning rosy at the end. As his mortality looms over him heavily, Randy tries to get closer to those around him with limited success. Marisa Tomei gives a great performance here as Cassidy, a stripper who is very friendly to Randy while working at her club. Like Randy, she is also past her prime in her profession, and she doesn’t draw the big numbers like she used to. The two of them are relics of the 80’s, and their happiest days have been trapped in that time which was brought to an end by the advent of Kurt Cobain and Grunge which all but vanquished the days of long haired heavy metal icons. Ironically, as perfect as they seem together, it is their individual professions which keep them apart. The rules they are sworn to follow are also the ones they struggle with, and in the end these rules define who they are.

Years after her Oscar win for “My Cousin Vinny,” Marisa Tomei remains of the more vastly underrated actresses working today. Since her win, she has given great performances in movies like “In the Bedroom” and “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” She continues to make leaps forward as an actress, and yet she remains at the fringes of fame. Perhaps she feels more comfortable doing independent films as they give her the best roles. All the same, part of me wishes she would get more respect because it doesn’t feel like she ever gets enough of it.

Evan Rachel Wood also co-stars as Randy’s long estranged daughter, Stephanie. They share some of the movie’s most emotionally raw and poignant moments together as Randy tries desperately to salvage any sort of connection he may have left with Stephanie. They share a nice walk together at the New Jersey shoreline where they reminisce about memories long gone, and Randy apologizes for not being there for her at all. Wood’s role is largely a reactive one, and she meets Rourke every step of the way when onscreen with him. Long after her emotionally searing performance in “Thirteen,” she is still not afraid of delving into the raw emotions held on to by the characters she plays.

Aronofsky is still best known for the mother of all anti-drug movies, “Requiem for a Dream” which was filmed with so many extreme camera moves and quick edits to where we were left with whiplash as we exited the theater. “The Wrestler,” however, does not have any of those flourishes. Instead, Aronofsky shoots the movie in a simple hand-held fashion and in 16mm to capture the rough and tumble realm these wrestlers exist in, and he makes you feel all the devastating hits, cuts and bruises these men are made to endure in the ring and when they are thrown outside of it as well. Like Paul Thomas Anderson, Aronofsky makes you experience the movie instead of just watching it passively.

I also loved how Aronofsky captured the camaraderie between these fellow wrestlers when they get together. We see them sharing the moves they will use with one another, and they always have the outcome figured out long in advance. We see the doctors attend to all the inflicted, let alone self-inflicted cuts, they get in the ring, and he makes you feel all the cuts which have long since torn away at their once perfect bodies. Aronofsky has never done things the clean way, and his work in “The Wrestler” continues this tradition unapologetically.

“The Wrestler” is not Aronofsky’s best movie (“Requiem for a Dream” still holds that title), but it is further proof of how he is one of the most exciting filmmakers working in this day and age. Some may have lost sight of this with “The Fountain,” but they shouldn’t after watching this. But in the end, this movie is really all about Rourke and how he and Randy interweave with one another to where you cannot tell if he is just acting or if he is just being the character.

Rourke makes you feel his character’s pain, both physical and emotional, throughout the movie. There is never a moment in this film where he fakes an emotion, and this is a performance coming straight from the heart. With his heartbreaking confession to his daughter, he takes what could have been a clichéd scene and fills it with pure emotion. It’s almost like he the actor is apologizing for not being better as an actor, and for squandering his potential with a lot of crap movies. Rourke has earned my forgiveness ever since he played Marv in “Sin City,” and his performance in “The Wrestler” completes what is a well-deserved comeback.

For those of you who have read my review of Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino,” you’ll remember how I talked about how certain parts need an actor whose face and body show a rough and tumble history, and that they have suffered through life’s most intense challenges. Rourke is not the pretty boy he used to be, but this makes him perfect for this role other than the fact he can still be a brilliant actor. Rourke sells the fact his character has a massive heart attack and that his body has been badly beaten (Rourke did briefly take up boxing when his acting career was almost gone). He sells how Randy now wears a hearing aid and glasses to read most things given to him. He also sells the fact he is deserving of another chance as a lead actor, and he knows he better not screw things up this time around.

“The Wrestler” is one of the most exhilarating and exhausting character pieces I have seen in some time. The movie is nothing short of a great triumph for its lead actor and its director, and it is topped off by a great theme song from Bruce Springsteen himself (who else could have done it?). In 2008, it was hard to think of another performance which could have been even more brilliant than Heath Ledger’s in “The Dark Knight,” but Rourke manages to top him here, and that was no easy feat.

* * * * out of * * * *

Amy

amy-documentary-poster

I remember the first time I listened to Amy Winehouse’s album “Back to Black.” It transported me to another time and place that had long ceased to exist as her music sounded like something out of the 60’s. I actually found her album at my local library and downloaded it onto my iPod with the hopes of listening to it one day. Once I did get around to listening to it, I couldn’t turn it off as I was too captivated by her amazing vocals and heartfelt lyrics.

It was profoundly sad to see Winehouse’s life get cut short at the age of 27 from alcohol poisoning. In some ways, her death wasn’t a huge surprise as she had endured a lot of substance abuse and paparazzi harassment in the years leading up to her death. She had become a tabloid punchline as it appeared as though she had no desire to hide her debaucheries from the public eye. Many of us rooted for Winehouse to pull herself out of her downward spiral and struggled to understand why she would self-destruct on such a public level, but it only goes to show just how much we know about being famous. One person described her as being an old soul in a young woman’s body, and this became even more the case as time went on.

The documentary “Amy” succeeds in giving us a very intimate look at Winehouse not just as a public figure, but as the person she was before and after she achieved worldwide fame. Many who knew her personally are interviewed here, and it gives us a picture into a life which became irrevocably damaged by fame and substance abuse. But even though we know how her story will end, the documentary brings her back to life for a short time, and it feels like she is still with us.

“Amy’s” first image will forever burn in my memory as we see the singer at her best friend’s 13th birthday party. We see her sing the song Happy Birthday and can’t take our eyes off of her as she does such an amazing job of belting it out. This proved to be the best way to start this documentary as we see right then and there a star has been born. Listening to her makes you wish she would sing at your next birthday party, seriously.

The documentary is full of never before seen home videos and footage which helps to give her more complexity and dimension than the media ever could while she was alive, and this makes seeing “Amy” all the more necessary. The singer has long sing joined the ranks of Janis Joplin and Billie Holiday, famous singers whose lives were cut short at such an early age, and like them, she deserves to be known for more than her vices.

What “Amy” shows is how Winehouse was a woman who got into music as a form of survival. Having been a child of divorce and suffered from depression, music and singing offered her an outlet from all the psychological damage life kept inflicting on her. She never saw herself having a career as a singer, and she admits early on she didn’t set out to become famous because she didn’t think she could handle it. Those words soon prove to be prophetic.

It was great to see all the home footage of Winehouse as it gives us a side of her the public never got to see until now. She appears for a time to be a fun-loving girl eager to spend her days with friends and smoke weed, but like any famous artist she was a tortured soul whose eagerness to sing was more about getting negative energy out of her system than making millions of dollars.

The fact “Amy” is such an intimate documentary isn’t a huge surprise to me as it was directed by Asif Kapadia, the same filmmaker who gave us one of the very best documentaries of the last few years with “Senna.” Just as he did with “Senna,” Kapadia invites us to spend time with a celebrity who we previously saw through the distorted lenses of corporate media.

It also gives you an up close and personal view of how damaging fame can be. One scene has Winehouse going up to the stage to accept an award, and the noise of the audience and fans quickly becomes deafening, illustrating how her life had become a fish bowl which cut her off from everyday reality. It’s not hard to feel for her as the prying and voyeuristic eyes of the media render her private life nonexistent.

Her addictions included alcohol and hard drugs like cocaine and heroin, but perhaps her biggest drug of all was the tempestuous love affair she had with Blake Fielder-Civil. The fact she and Blake didn’t meet the same fate which greeted Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen seems amazing considering how deeply intertwined they were in each other’s lives and vices. Woody Harrelson in “Natural Born Killers” said “love beats the demon,” but for Winehouse, love may have proven to be her biggest demon even as it fueled some of her most unforgettable songs.

“Amy” also calls into question how we deal with celebrities whose lives are spinning out of control. Winehouse became a punchline for comedians as her woes continued endlessly, and what might have seemed funny while she was alive now seems cruel in retrospect. Perhaps we are numbed to the suffering of celebrities as we have many examples of famous peoples’ lives getting cut short from one generation to the next, but it also shows the pleasure many took in her self-degradation. Now you may say she brought this all on herself, but did she really?

It’s horrifying and ultimately heartbreaking to see Winehouse in her last days as such a gaunt and unhealthy looking person. Many have called her a nasty diva but, as Kapadia shows here, she was really trying to escape the constant glare of the media and attention she never set out to get. At the last concert she did before her death, one she did not want to do, she refused to sing a single note even as the crowd mercilessly booed her. From a distance this looks like the antics of a spoiled pop star, but it was an act of defiance on her part as she was struggling to escape the famous persona which had been thrust upon her. Sadly, she found the escape through death.

Now I may be making “Amy” sound like a truly depressing cinematic experience, but while it is heartbreaking, it is also joyful as well. Winehouse was an exceptionally gifted singer, and hearing her voice when it is not being backed up by a band is jaw-dropping to witness. She really did have one hell of a voice. Also, Kapadia pays close attention to the lyrics she wrote and how autobiographical they proved to be. After watching “Amy,” it will be impossible to look at any of her songs the same way again.

There are wonderful moments when Winehouse performs in London for the Grammys after getting clean and sober, and it’s great to see her excitement when Tony Bennett comes onstage. When she ends up winning a Grammy, the theater she’s in bursts into applause and cheers, and it’s exhilarating to see everyone’s reactions as all the hard work paid off in a great way. Of course, this moment is also tinged with sadness as we know this will be the last true moment of happiness in Winehouse’s life.

Granted, “Amy” has been dealing with some controversy as her family has blasted the documentary as being inaccurate. Her father, Mitch, has been especially critical as he feels the filmmakers portrayed him in a very negative light. Mitch, in all fairness, has a right to feel this way, but Kapadia has given us an objective look at him and everyone else featured in a way which doesn’t moralize or demonize anyone. Any faults of Mitch shown onscreen are his to own up to, but at least the movie doesn’t show him as being completely absent throughout his daughter’s life.

For what it’s worth, Mitch comes off a lot better than her daughter’s ex-husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, who openly admits to introducing Winehouse to crack cocaine and heroin. The fact he admits this to Kapadia in an interview is astonishing, and it makes clear he is the one with the higher price to pay for Winehouse’s demise.

I’ve watched a number of documentaries recently which have been very entertaining, but many of them dig only so deep or touch at the surface of their subject’s life. It’s like there’s something missing which makes the whole endeavor seem like a loss opportunity when you look back on it. But “Amy” proves to be one of the very best documentaries in the past few years as it examines its subject objectively and without fear, and it leaves no stone unturned as it uncovers the many aspects of this troubled singer’s personality.

Just as he did with “Senna,” Kapadia has made “Amy” as a way to get to know this famous personality in a way we never had before. It’s like he has brought her back to life for a short time to where it feels like she never left, and it is nice to see her portrayed in such a way more befitting to who she was as an individual instead of how she was as a worldwide famous celebrity.

It was nice to meet you, Ms. Winehouse. Sorry you couldn’t stay with us a little while longer.

* * * * out of * * * *