‘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 * * * *

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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.

 

‘Logan Lucky’ Rescues Steven Soderbergh From His Unintended Retirement

Logan Lucky movie poster

I never really believed Steven Soderbergh was all that serious about retiring from filmmaking. Since calling it quits after “Behind the Candelabra,” he directed the Cinemax television series “The Knick,” helped Spike Jonze edit his Oscar-winning film “Her,” executive produced the television series version of “The Girlfriend Experience,” and he has even gone out of his way to recut famous movies like “Raiders of the Ark” and “Heaven’s Gate” (the latter which has been referred to as “The Butcher’s Cut”). This man has had filmmaking in his blood probably since birth, and you can’t keep a good filmmaker like him down.

Soderbergh is finally back in the world of motion pictures with “Logan Lucky,” and it’s another heist movie but one with a cast of characters nowhere as smart or as gloriously debonair as those from the “Ocean’s Eleven” movies. In fact, during a newscast we hear someone describe this gang of thieves as “Ocean’s 7-Eleven,” and this description feels more than appropriate given what we have seen.

Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) is a hard-working construction worker at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but this soon doesn’t matter as his boss is forced to terminate his employment after he is seen limping around the workplace due to an injury which ended his ever so promising football career. Jimmy is told his limp represents a “pre-existing condition,” a term which these days should be seen as the equivalent of a four-letter word. On top of this, his ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) informs him she and her husband will soon be moving to Lynchburg, Tennessee which will make visiting his daughter, Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie), all the more difficult.

So, what’s an unemployed father with few prospects to do? Well, rob the race track of course. For this, he turns to his brother, the one-armed war veteran and bartender Clyde (Adam Driver), to pull off this challenging heist (is there any other kind?) without a hitch. Together they assemble a team which includes convicted safecracker and explosives expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), their sister Mellie (Riley Keough) who figures prominently in Sadie’s beauty pageant contest and can drive a Ford Mustang better than Bobbie Jo’s car salesman husband Moody (David Denman), and a pair of brothers, Sam (Brian Gleeson) and Fish (Jack Quaid) who are willing to participate in criminal activities as long as it doesn’t interfere with their religious beliefs.

Is “Logan Lucky” among Soderbergh’s best movies? No, but it does provide the audience with a fun time, and you can sense the director’s giddiness as he tackles the screenplay written by Rebecca Blunt with an unrestrained relish. This is familiar territory for the Oscar-winning director, but we can easily sense how inspired he felt while making this feature. There have been many heist movies and there will be many more after this one, but Soderbergh makes this one breathe as it has a lively setting and characters who could have been mere southern clichés but who are instead brought to wonderful life thanks to the actors portraying them. Soderbergh is also well-served by his frequent collaborators which include composer David Holmes, cinematographer Peter Andrews and editor Mary Ann Bernard (pay special attention to those last two names) as they help realize his vision in a way few others could.

This is one of those movies which features a big-name cast, and watching it reveals even more big names than what you may have noticed when looking at the poster. One actor I got a huge kick out of seeing here was Daniel Craig as Joe Bang represents a much-needed change of pace for the actor best known as James Bond (by the way, I’m thrilled to hear he will be playing 007 for a fifth time). Adapting an Appalachian accent which could not have been easy to pull off, Craig is an utter delight playing someone who is not the least big refined or tasteful in the clothes he chooses, or is forced, to wear. Also, seeing him deal with an explosive device he made out of household substances is especially hilarious as he has us in suspense until he doesn’t.

Adam Driver, who is quickly proving to be one of the most talented actors of his generation, is a deadpan delight as Clyde Logan as his face remains an impenetrable one incapable of showing emotions. In fact, I think he is as deadpan here as Steven Wright is in his comedy routines, and that’s saying a lot. Despite the seeming lack of emotions, Driver makes Clyde a fascinating character whose loss of an arms says more about him than he could ever say about himself.

There are many other actors worth mentioning here, but I would rather not as it might spoil the surprises you will find in this movie. I do, however, have to mention Dwight Yoakam who plays Warden Burns as this role represents something of a departure from the typical bad guys he has been known to play. Yoakam is hilarious in scenes where he tries to control a prison riot by explaining to the inmates how “Games of Thrones” show no longer follows the books it is based on. It also took me far too long to recognize Seth MacFarlane as the pretentious British businessman Max Chilblain or Sebastian Stan as NASCAR race driver Dayton White. Then again, this should testify as to what they both can get away with as actors.

“Logan Lucky” goes on a little longer than it should as various loose ends take an extensive amount of time to tie up for us to have a satisfying conclusion, but it is still a wonderfully inventive movie which represents a welcome return for a filmmaker we never wanted to see retire. While it doesn’t match up to Soderbergh’s greatest masterpieces, it does show how his enthusiasm for filmmaking is still strong even after it appeared to be burned out forever. This movie also gives me an increased appreciation for the word cauliflower as well as the music of John Denver. You may ask why, but to discover why, you have to watch this movie.

* * * out of * * * *

‘It Comes at Night’ is Not Your Average Psychological Horror Movie

It Comes at Night movie poster

It Comes at Night” cannot and should not be mistaken for your average psychological horror movie. Whereas the average genre film aims to delineate who the good guys and the bad guys are, no such distinction is made here as writer and director Trey Edward Shults has rendered the characters to be all too human. We understand their wants, needs and motivations very well, and this makes the movie even more unsettling than it already is.

We are introduced to Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) as they lay Sarah’s father, Bud (David Pendleton), to rest in a most uncomfortable way. We soon learn the family has secluded themselves in their country home as some highly contagious disease has since laid waste to the world. Along with their dog, Stanley, the family keeps themselves out of danger by staying locked up at night when the danger which threatens humanity is at its most powerful point.

But their bubble is suddenly threatened when a stranger named Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their home, believing it to be unoccupied and in desperate need of supplies for himself and his family. After tying Will to a tree overnight to confirm he is not infected by the disease, Paul decides he is worth helping and succeeds in bringing Will’s wife, Kim (Riley Keough), and their son, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), to safety to where they are all leaving under the same roof. But even as they come to settle down comfortably with one another, the inevitable conflicts arise which will force them into a game of survival no one can back away from peacefully.

Shults made an unforgettable directorial debut with “Krisha” which was one of my favorite movies of 2016. While “Krisha” was an emotionally pulverizing motion picture, “It Comes at Night” is one which mercilessly plays with your head as it taps into your fears of the things you can’t see or understand. Paul, Sarah and Travis rarely stray far from their country home as just about everything outside of seems all too threatening to confront. Whether or not you think Shults gives the “it” of the movie’s title a clear definition, it won’t matter. The it could be anything. It could be a supernatural force, an incurable disease, or perhaps it is the realization of the violent deeds we are capable of committing when pushed to our breaking point.

“In order to appease the gods, the Druid priests held fire rituals. Prisoners of war, criminals, the insane, animals… were… burned alive in baskets. By observing the way they died, the Druids believed they could see omens of the future. Two thousand years later, we’ve come no further. Samhain isn’t evil spirits. It isn’t goblins, ghosts or witches. It’s the unconscious mind. We’re all afraid of the dark inside ourselves.”

                                                                                                                           -Donald Pleasance

                                                                                                                            “Halloween II

I put the above quote from “Halloween II” up above because those words were playing in my head while watching “It Comes at Night.” Looking at these characters, you can tell they were once decent people who wanted nothing more than to raise their families and live in peace, but the state of the world has forced them to defend what is theirs in a way they never thought they would resort to. This is especially the case with Paul who has long since become handy with a shotgun and disposing of corpses. But Edgerton, who is excellent as Paul, eventually shows the character at his most vulnerable state as he comes to see not just the person he has become, but the person he always was.

Shults shows the fears of all these characters reaching their peak at nighttime when fear and paranoia combine to create a more hostile environment than the one outside their front door. Speaking of the front door, it is painted a dark red as horror movies always feature a red door or two, and Paul makes it clear to everyone how the door must always stay locked at night, always. As Roger Corman once said, one of the scariest images in any movie is the closed door. So, when the door moves suddenly is ajar, Shults has us right in his grasp to where we are sitting straight up in our chairs.

In addition to Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo and Kelvin Harrison Jr. provide strong support as Paul’s wife, Sarah, and their son Travis. Together, they portray a family much like any other, struggling to survive in an increasingly insane world. Christopher Abbott, so good in “James White,” inhabits the character of Will with both a tense desperation and an easy-going attitude as he settles in with Paul and his family. This is an actor incapable of faking an emotion, and his performance in “It Comes at Night” is the latest example. Riley Keough is also excellent as Will’s wife, Kim, as she makes her an enigmatic presence to where you don’t know whether to hug her or keep your distance from her.

In making everything seem so down to earth, “It Comes at Night” does suffer as things become more underplayed than they should have been. There were times where I wished Shults had injected more energy into the story as things begin to feel way too subtle. Still, when the movie works, it really works as the tension builds to a fierce climax where I could not find myself rooting for one person over the other. Shults is also assisted by his “Krisha” collaborators Drew Daniels whose cinematography makes the darkness these characters live in all the more threatening and claustrophobic, and by composer Brian McOmber who provides another unsettling score which builds up an already intense motion picture into something feverishly intense.

The ending of “It Comes at Night” proves to be both infuriating and utterly haunting as we are left to wonder what will become of whoever is left. It feels like the movie ended sooner than it should have, but perhaps it would have been unfair to ask Shults to give us something more definitive. Still, it’s nice to see something like this occupying the local movie houses alongside the summer blockbusters as it gives us a lot to ponder once the lights come up.

As for myself, the post-apocalyptic setting of this movie is almost secondary to the one thing which should matter the most to these characters – trust. Whether we are living in the best of times or the worst of times, trust is the one thing we need more than anything else to survive one hard working day after another. Without trust, how can we survive in a crazy world? “It Comes at Night” confronts the issue of trust head-on, and it is devastating to see it break down amongst characters who might otherwise have no problem living under the same roof.

* * * ½ out of * * * *