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Review: The House That Jack Built (Lars von Trier)

Siobhan Fallon Hogan and Matt Dillon in The House That Jack Built

The artist turns in upon himself, and turns against his better instincts, in Lars von Trier's The House That Jack Built, a work that may qualify as both 2018's most complex and its most simple simultaneously, and arguably its most risible. The critic as judge is precisely their purpose, though I've often balked at the idea of myself as a moral arbiter; von Trier makes the idea more palatable, calling direct attention to the link between art and the issues of morality in its production and consumption both - perhaps only to mock and deride the link, but thus also legitimizing it. It is here that one observes the crucial contradiction at this disquieting movie's core: The House That Jack Built has been constructed as a reflective commentary on von Trier's career to date, explaining and excusing its myriad controversies and curiosities by compounding them further, yet they warranted neither explanation nor excuse until now. von Trier's fresh controversies only exist through this very commentary, which both created and reflects upon them, effectively justifying their existence through that existence itself. All this theorizing and self-judgement serves only whatever purposes von Trier wants it to serve - you may consider it valid by virtue of being expressed alone, or by its apparent sagacity, but it's neither clever nor cool for trash to expound upon the ways in which it is so evidently trash, and I do not consider it valid at all.

And so what of the provocation, which was surely so much more tolerable when its intentions were merely to provoke? Now that we're being provoked to think, and only to think upon the provocation itself, it is crass and infuriating. von Trier, I believe, always sourced perverse pleasure in pairing the ugliness of his vision with the beauty of his technique, and is likely more pleasured than ever yet by the scale of the disgust toward his vision in The House That Jack Built, not least for its implications toward the extent of his work to date. This does not make me want to strive harder to appreciate this movie, nor to refute my status as a mindless, moralizing do-gooder should that be the verdict on my distate for it. I may come across as square for loathing this movie's misogyny, its nastiness, its eagerness to induce such responses in its audience, or for failing to acknowledge the self-reflexivity of that eagerness or of that self-reflexivity itself, but I don't care how I come across. von Trier has put this shit out into the world, and all its own tedious, intentionally damning moralizing merely bungles around in a black hole of pointlessness; in manufacturing something patently inexcusable, and then vainly challenging itself to excuse the inexcusable, this movie doesn't open up a valuable dialogue on the nature of art and the role of the artist, it reduces such dialogues to meaningless musings on whatever those artists want them to be.

What an artist thinks of themselves may be of value to many, but not to me. More valuable to me is what I think of those artists, and I think Lars von Trier is a talent like few others, whose efforts here are surely as great as they ever have been before, but whose output is here of uniquely abhorrent standard. I believe I am justly repelled by scene upon extended scene of the torture, murder and mutilation of innocent women, and justly unmoved by von Trier's winking appraisal of himself as a sick man and a legitimate genius. I am also impressed by his technical style, and by the work of an excellent ensemble cast. That's what I think of The House That Jack Built, and that's all that matters to me in my own, serious appraisal of a seriously nasty work of art.

Image Credit: MovieStillsDB

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