Provocateur-auteur Lars von Trier premiered an unauthorized director’s cut of his new film The House That Jack Built in select theaters on November 28. At Portland, Oregon’s Cinema 21 — one of the hundred-ish theaters nation-wide to screen the one-night special — nearly 150 waited eagerly in their seats. After causing much scandal and outcry among the genteel audience at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, the crowd at this showing was an off-kilter mix of gore-loving freaks and arthouse film nerds. Some bore studded leather and mohawks; others, wire-rimmed glasses, chic totes, and kombucha.
The quiet majority of the audience, however, were single white men. Their presence was less pronounced, but stood a monolith against the others. The scene brought to my mind the ingredients of a public mass shooting: extremely violent film, single white men, movie theater. Was the newest brand of American serial killer sitting in this room? Apropos the film, I thought.
As the lights dimmed, von Trier made a surprise appearance on screen. After daring everyone to sit through the entire film, he exclaimed, “Good luck, and never another Trump.” Von Trier’s salient final comment shaped our first encounter with the film’s star Matt Dillon: it more than suggested a correlation between Dillon’s character Jack and the 45th president. When Jack was first announced, von Trier explained that the project “celebrates the idea that life is evil and soulless, which is sadly proven by the recent rise of the Homo trumpus — the rat king.”
Von Trier’s films have always been highly symbolic; his dramas follow an often fatal narrative design that is imbued with cultural signs. His tact is often tactless, as these signs are usually shown one after another on screen, interrupting the linear trajectory of the films. From the theological images in Antichrist to the predator/prey analogy that creates the sinister tone in Nymphomaniac, von Trier puts pressure on his audience to assemble the oftentimes disparate symbols and images in a meaningful way. The task of assembly comes secondary if not at all to the sheer emotional registers his films elicit. Because of this rhetorical move, the director is often criticized for his sophomoric filmmaking and unnecessary usage of violence and pornography, which are not viewed as symbolic but offensive. He constantly flirts with spilling over the top. But for the most part, his fans find the abstractions of abject human form artful, intellectual, daring, and important. The House That Jack Built is a crooked piece in von Trier’s oeuvre that leaves even his greatest admirers questioning its accomplishment. Yet, as his previous work has established, embedded in the film’s brutal scenes is a code meant to be deciphered.
The two-and-a-half-hour dark comedy is divided into five “incidents” that serial killer Jack recounts in an off-screen dialogue with an anonymous character called “Verge.” With each incident, Jack falls deeper into psychosis, increasingly exhibiting a persona he calls “Mr. Sophistication.” Von Trier’s film adheres closely to the narrative of Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel American Psycho, and has received similar critical reception: both have entered into America’s pop-culture with illicit notoriety. Ellis’s novel is a portrait of a serial killer as a yuppie everyman. With the character Patrick Bateman as the embodiment of wealth, success, whiteness, and masculinity, Ellis offers a scathing critique of white masculine identity in 1980s America. Ellis refers to Donald Trump often throughout the novel as a figure of Bateman’s admiration, which not only reads as an omen to the figure that has seized America today but also speaks to the violence of his character.
The lineage of body horror descending from Ellis’s work, which has since been deemed senseless gore in much mainstream cultural discourse, centers on the white male as a figure of violence. Where Ellis explores the urban, social, wealthy subject in New York, von Trier turns to a rural, isolated subject living in the Pacific Northwest. Superficially, Bateman and Jack have nothing in common, and yet their comparable acts of violence against female bodies and their affiliations with Trump suggest otherwise.
The first “incident” is supposedly Jack’s first murder, although the flashbacks to his childhood suggest he was always a sadist. Uma Thurman plays his first victim: a wealthy — and awfully annoying — maiden in distress who flags Jack down from the side of a rural road and coerces him to assist her with a flat tire. The lack of dramatic irony in the scene creates a sense of unreality, as Thurman’s murder is already promised before the scene begins. Because each incident is told retrospectively from Jack’s point of view, his victims are always portrayed as “asking for it.” Von Trier masterfully toys with anticipation and tension. Thurman jokes that Jack is going to kill her. She constantly mentions her broken car jack, which he hears as her crooning “Jack, Jack, Jack,” as if begging him to kill her. The crack of Thurman’s skull comes as a relief when Jack finally hits her.
Each incident occurs with this momentum: a “stupid” victim (typically female) goading Jack into violence until he finally, ingloriously succumbs. Thankfully, von Trier poses the off-screen Verge as the voice of morality. Through each vignette, Verge questions Jack’s motives, perceptions, and actions in a sort of Socratic dialogue. At one point, he asks Jack, “but why do you tell about all these women as if they are so stupid?” to which Jack replies, “Because they are.” We realize mid-way through the film that “Verge” is Virgil, the Roman poet of the Aeneid and fictional embodiment of human reason in Dante’s Inferno. Virgil’s presence in the film prevents it from slipping too deep into moral corruption, while also suggesting that the off-screen dialogue takes place in hell, or somewhere close to it.
This scoreless film draws its horror from both the vividness of its scenes and the abstraction of its violence. The lack of score prevents scenes from feeling overly cinematic, while also highlighting the visceral, disturbing sounds of bodily pain: slicing skin, gunshots, gasps for breath. This sonic intimacy pairs with the unsteadied close-ups and odd-angled shots to create a home-video style that makes the violence even realer. Von Trier’s realism is undercut by long, digressing lessons in art and history. It is in these meandering moments that von Trier’s grandest and most disturbing commentaries lie. Only through a lecture of great architectural achievements juxtaposed against images of the Holocaust does von Trier suggest Jack’s conception that murder and violence are a form of high art. This notion informs the film’s double entendre title, as Jack’s house is both literally his project as an architect and symbolically the violence he commits. Only through Jack’s off-screen idolization of the “great icons” of history — Hitler, Mao Tse-Dong, Lenin, and Stalin — can we configure his small-town murders into symbolic analogs of history-altering horrors. Through these fleeting but seminal digressions, von Trier succeeds in bridging the onscreen violence to the grander historical and ideological violence enacted in Trump’s America.
In his Divine Comedy, Dante describes hell as the world “of those who have rejected spiritual values by yielding to bestial appetites or violence, or by perverting their human intellect to fraud or malice against their fellow men.” Accordingly, Dante’s journey through the inferno’s nine circles is meant to be redemptive, filled with reflection and recognition of life’s sins. Since the narrative present of Jack’s storyline occurs off-screen with Verge, we can assume that the “incidents” we witness are Jack’s reflection of his life as a serial killer. In the final incident, where Jack builds a literal house out of the dead bodies he keeps in his walk-in freezer, Jack’s retrospective narrative converges with his present one. At the moment of being caught by authorities, Jack finds a hole in the floor and descends into the underworld (literally and figuratively). The spatial and temporal chiasmus that occurs in the final incident showcases von Trier at his maddest, and perhaps most skilled.
In the film’s epilogue, entitled “Katabasis” (Greek for “descent”), we finally catch up with the conversing Jack and Verge. In a scene filmed on an actual home video camera, the camera follows the pair through sewer pipes and water. Next we see a slow-moving tableau vivant representing the ferryman of Hades escorting Jack and Verge across the River Styx. The jumbled styles used to film and portray the epilogue offer an artful but chaotic denouement. In this particular pairing of scenes, von Trier further emphasizes the dichotomy between reality and abstraction, chaos and art.
The House That Jack Built finds poetic justice in its rendering of sublime violence. Despite its accomplishment in that respect, the myriad assaults on the female body trend toward overly voyeuristic exploitation. Throughout his career, von Trier has been accused of misogyny and sexual abuse, and at points this film seems like an attempt to rebut these accusations with irony. Yet, Jack fails to redeem himself because he never genuinely understands his wrongs, and von Trier’s choice to present repeated mutilations of the female body grants him a similar fate. While his manipulation of the female form is meant to be ironic, the perpetuation of such violent imagery ultimately reinforces misogyny in both physical and abstract representations.
Much of the audience at Cinema 21 remained seated after the lights eased back on. I had laughed at some of the more gruesome scenes, like when Jack cut off one of Jacqueline’s (Riley Keough) breasts. That’s how I processed such visceral, personal violence. But I had heard other laughter in the audience — male laughter. Was this how they processed it too? While Jack’s character remains bound to the screen as a warning sign for the future of mass murders and violence against women in America, the celebration of brutality as an art form is undoubtedly entertaining for certain audience members, and at worst, inspiring. The film feeds into a toxic generative relationship between consuming violence onscreen and recreating it in real life. This trend is noted in American Psycho when Bateman views films like Brian De Palma’s Body Double only to recreate the same violence against his own female victims, but it is also rampant in America as contemporary school shooters look to archives of the Columbine Shooting for inspiration.
Thus emerges the ethical dilemma surrounding von Trier’s newest film: it straddles the line between violence as art and art as violence. Von Trier knew that this film would be received as both a masterpiece and a disgrace; his intention is not for us to meditate on this. He implicates us as voyeurs, obsessed but removed from the terror of the Trump presidency. Patrick Bateman gets away with public murders because onlookers are complacent. Von Trier accuses us of the same idle voyeurism. As the movie closed, the screen showed a black, mutating void while a shrill, disturbing white noise rang through the theater. We were all in von Trier’s hell then. While The House That Jack Built adds to the ongoing dialogue around the toxicity of white patriarchy, von Trier’s ultimate commentary is on the violence of complacency in America.