The Artist, the Rat King and Jack: A Deeper Look into ‘The House that Jack Built’

by Chris van Dijk
The House that Jack Built

This article will be filled with spoilers for The House that Jack Built and numerous other works of Lars von Trier. 

Debuting on December 14th at the Cannes Film Festival, The House That Jack Built is the story of Jack (Matt Dillon), a serial killer who recounts his 12 year criminal career in five episodes. He imagines his crimes as works of art as he tells of each horrific incident.

As expected, the film was controversial. It’s director, Lars von Trier, is one of cinema’s most prolific provocateurs, so I wasn’t particularly shocked with what I saw in The House that Jack Built. This was partly due to the reviews that spoiled most of the explicit content and the trailer that showed some of the goriest imagery.

I actually expected the film to be much worse. Compared to the insane bravado of Antichrist (another von Trier film), this film, while not tame, is a little more subdued.

Throughout the film, von Trier was toying with our sensitive zeitgeist. Many critics have noted the possible snide reference to the #MeToo Movement when Jack goes on a diatribe about how it’s always the “man’s fault.” Jack also praises Hitler and his genocidal brethren as misunderstood artists. Jack also postulates that a writer’s dark fiction might be his way of exploring his most depraved desires — a monologue that splices in some of the most shocking scenes of Von Trier’s filmography.

But at the same time, all of it seemed like an attempt to needle the most sensitive of liberal viewers. The premise of an intellectual serial killer who mostly murders women, from a filmmaker who has often been accused of misogyny, is begging for controversy. Often times it seems that Lars von Trier is nothing more than an intellectually sophisticated troll. Besides listening to the music of Bach, von Trier also likes to sit back and watch people lose their minds.

So is The House that Jack Built just bait for PC liberals? Or is there something meaningful beneath the house of corpses from the murderous engineer (and wannabe architect) known as Jack?

Von Trier: Misogynist or Shock Artist?

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How do you perceive Lars von Trier? Image by WP film

It’s impossible to talk about The House that Jack Built without talking about Lars von Trier. The film is filled with references concerning von Trier’s past work and public controversy. While many viewers might be ignorant about his cinematic presence or past work, those with even a minor interest in modern cinema will either adore or loath the name of von Trier. It’s not just his style of filmmaking that’s on display, it’s his public persona.

Lars von Trier knows this and has learned from the many postmodern artists before him. He doesn’t just want to make a good film, he wants to raise questions without necessarily answering them; questions such as: can we as viewers separate the art from the artist? Can we separate his persona from the real person? Are our opinions of artists influenced too much by the media?

This is why it’s hard to judge The House that Jack Built solely on the movie itself. Considering the storyline and the reported depravity on screen, the film was destined to be torn apart by his critics. This is not to say that anyone who critiques Von Trier is biased. There were plenty of justifiable lukewarm reviews of his movie. But many reviewers seemed to be influenced by our political climate.

There’s controversy surrounding the director’s supposed misogyny. This comes with discussions about the meekness of women in his movie. Once again, we must question whether this is a sign of his deep seated misogyny or that he’s merely poking fun at our perceptions of him as a filmmaker.

It’s easy to list female characters in his work and assign subservient roles to them. But you could just as easily note them for being incredibly well-written, complicated characters, something that seems mostly relegated for male characters in cinema.

Since I perceive von Trier as a provocateur, I dismiss the accusations of misogyny. Maybe I just don’t want to see von Trier this way. Perhaps the truth is a little more nuanced.

There are so many interpretations of his work. Perhaps we will never really know the truth — there’s a good chance that von Trier doesn’t know either.

The Morality in von Trier’s Work

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Image via Business Insider.

Though von Trier’s work is seen as nihilistic by some, moral stances can be found in any of his movies. Great evil does pervade many of his films. It’s especially dangerous for those willing to open their hearts to other people.

We see how Bess (Emily Watson) is horribly dismissed by her conservative neighbors in Breaking the Waves; how Selma’s trust (Bjork) and saintly motherhood leads to her eventual death sentence in Dancer in the Dark; how Grace (Nicole Kidman) is taken advantage of by the townspeople of Dogville. These protagonists are good people pushed to their breaking point.

Von Trier’s protagonists are severely flawed, sometimes naive like Bess, but they represent our necessary hold on decency; on the light that must shine even in the darkest corners of our world.

Even The House that Jack Built a film filled with violence and black humor — has a moral core. The film is not on Jack’s side. But we’re invited to listen and even understand Jack’s reasons for his slaughter. Jack doesn’t say he kills because he merely likes it, but that he’s an “artist.”

But his guardian to the afterlife, Verge (Bruno Ganz), makes it clear that it’s all just an excuse. Jack is a sociopath who justifies his killings with artistic pretension. 

Does Jack Represent Donald Trump?

Image via The Wrap

Von Trier described The House that Jack Built as a film that “celebrates the idea that life is evil and soulless, which is sadly proven by the rise of Homo Trumpus.” This makes the viewer ponder whether Jack’s depraved worldview parallels the political rise of Donald Trump.

So where’s the connection to Donald Trump? On the most rudimentary reading of Trump’s life, you will see a privileged man devoted to a life of self-satiation. This can be found in his own boisterous output. Whether he’s a good politician or not, there should no be doubt about his lack of moral fiber.

As the corruption of Trump’s business and political peers becomes painfully clear, we see that morality was often the last thing on their minds.

I believe The House that Jack Built is partly von Trier’s opposition against our zeitgeist. This is not the first time an artist has used a serial killer tale to critique an era. Brett Easton Ellis used a serial killer as a parable of 1980s corporate greed in his novel American Psycho. Similarly, von Trier reveals the depravity in our age.

OCD and the Artist’s Desire for Perfection

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Image via Vox

Out of all the disturbingly funny scenes, my favorite is the one where Jack’s OCD pushes him to return to the crime scene, so he can rid the house of any trace of gore. This compulsion is fueled in part by his fear of getting captured by the authorities. 

But anyone who understands OCD, or who, like me, has to live with it everyday, knows it’s not about rationality. No, the disorder is about obsessively seeking completeness. In Jack’s case, everything has to comply to his sense of cleanliness. A drop of blood, even hidden behind a picture frame would betray his sacred neurotic commandment.

I don’t suffer from cleaning compulsions myself, but my own brand of compulsions has given me many anxious days and nights. No matter how aware I was of these compulsive acts, I could not stop myself from pursuing them. This is why I couldn’t help but smile and even feel a little kinship with Jack in this particular scene.

His OCD is also expressed through his tireless pursuit of the perfect house. Throughout his life, he’s constantly working on designing his house but he can’t seem to get anywhere. He has the financial means and possibly the talent, but there’s always something wrong. When he realizes during construction that the building foundation is all wrong, he opts to tear down the house and start anew.

When finally the police close in and Jack has entered the spirit world, Jack’s guide, Verge, gives him an opportunity to realize his failed artistic dream. “Find the material Jack and let it do the work,” Verge says. So Jack starts building his house with the only material he has at his disposal: the corpses of his victims. Even if it pales in comparison to his deepest ambition, he needs to build his house so his soul can pass to the other side.

This incompleteness is a reference to the artist’s never ending pursuit for perfection. Von Trier wants to make this perfect film — something that has both beauty and endurance; something he won’t pick apart years later. Von Trier, just like any artist, want to build a perfect house — the one that completes his lifework.

The question is whether this is possible or even good. Perhaps perfection is something that brings down great works of art. Sometimes it’s the tiny flaws that make a work a great masterpiece.

Here we come to another, perhaps most important of The House that Jack Built: out of all the evil and tragedy that encompasses the human condition, it’s art and creation, even in its most fleeting form that is truly holy. It’s art, the expression of the most painful (and darkest) moments of the human condition, that can make it feel worth it.

Remember: Jack Burns in Hell at the End

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Jack standing in the middle of his incomplete house. Image via Variety.

As you might well realize by now, I’m quite a big fan of Lars von Trier. All of his works challenge me in ways the works of other filmmakers cannot. It pushes me into uncomfortable strains of thought which I think is something that art should often do. He does what he wants and refuses to conform to commercial standard — a rarity in cinema nowadays. He’s one of the few filmmakers who can create personal and intellectually engaging content, often times by working with incredible performers. In other words, it’s refreshing to see a film that isn’t made entirely with green screens.

The great thing about the discourse between Jack and Verge is that Jack does not come out the total victor. Verge is not portrayed as some naive fool. He listens patiently but affirms his opposition. Most of the time, Jack is portrayed as the fool because his lack empathy eventually cuts him short.

Even so, von Trier doesn’t sugarcoat Jack’s arrogance and wickedness. The film gives one moment where Jack begins to realize that he’s lacking something. During his journey into the underworld, he catches a glimpse of another world, a world that brings him back to a most innocent moment of his childhood. He unleashes a single tear and from that moment seems to understand that due to his psychopathic nature, he missed out on something beautiful.

So we get our little moment of humanity of Jack. But even this moment does not save him. Having watched him all his life, Verge brings him down to one of the lowest levels of hell. They face a broken bridge. On the other side is a stairway to heaven, but Jack can’t show the penance needed to get there.

Yet he still seeks an easy way out of hell. He says goodbye to Verge and tries to climb to the other side. Verge tells him that many have tried but all have failed. “I’ll take my chances” says Jack. Verge knows how it will end, he doesn’t even watch it happen. He’s seen it so many times before.

And so Jack slips and falls into the depths of hell. For some of the accusations that von Trier has sympathy with this serial killer, Jack’s fate seems to make it clear that von Trier doesn’t want his deeds to go unpunished.

The final image of the film is the bottomless hellfire in which Jack has disappeared. The image suddenly turns into a negative, the lustrous photographic style Jack was always fond of. Perhaps the negative photo image was the way Jack wrongly perceived the world — it was the only way he could see the world.

For people like Jack the beauty of the world will always be lost to them.

the house that jack built

image via

Thank you for reading! Have you seen The House That Jack Built? Comment down below!

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