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As controversial for its maker as it is for the shape it takes, “The House That Jack Built” asks us to consider: at what price art?

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ABOUT THIS COLUMN
And so it begins… one man’s monthly quest to venture into the darkest corners of cinema. It’s a journey to seek out the shocking, disturbing, and most notoriously deranged films in existence and to determine if they live up to their ghoulish reputations. WARNING: The following program contains material that might be inappropriate for some viewers. VIEWER DISCRETION ADVISED. 

THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT (2018)

THE PLOT:

The film follows the gruesome exploits of Jack (played by Matt Dillion), a highly intelligent serial killer who dubs himself Mr. Sophistication. We watch as Jack recollects and reflects on over a decade of events from his past with a mysterious figure called Verge (played by Bruno Ganz). What follows is five randomly selected murders chosen by Jack, revealing a glimpse into his warped psyche, hellish insight into his ever-evolving bloodthirsty impulses, and sparking a philosophical debate about the nature of art.

THE BLOODY BACKGROUND:

Written and directed by arthouse agitator Lars von Tier, the Danish filmmaker who has infamously courted controversy throughout his colorful career, The House that Jack Built was his first film since 2013’s Nymphomaniac, the third entry in his “Depression” trilogy that included 2009’s Antichrist and 2011’s Melancholia.

The House that Jack Built poured its foundations at the Cannes Film Festival, which trumpeted von Tier’s return after being booted from the festival for offensive remarks he made while promoting Melancholia. As it turned out, The House that Jack Built was tailored for the precise purpose of riling up the festival crowds and igniting a firestorm in the press.

THE DAMN DIRTY DETAILS:

Arriving at a moment where it seems as though the masses are growing immune to the violence around them, The House that Jack Built was devised through blueprints of von Tier’s own inner turmoil. He memorably made headlines in 2011 when he made seemingly pro-Nazi remarks at the Cannes Film Festival during a panel for Melancholia, which resulted in the director winding up “persona non grata.” He would go on to apologize for the comments, with even several of the cast members of Melancholia rushing to his defense.

Still, the remarks – which he would claim were made while he was inebriated and in sarcasm – tarnished his name and understandably left many outraged. It didn’t help that in interviews since the incident, he would walk back on his apology and suggest that he was sober.

With a history of suffering from depression and being quite open about his mental health issues, von Tier further found himself in hot water when he was accused by Bjork, who starred in his wildly offbeat 2000 musical, Dancer in the Dark, of sexual harassment. He’d later admit to verbally abusing her on set, revealing a reputation of having a difficult working relationship with many of his actresses, but he denied the allegations.

Over the years, von Tier’s toxicity has been open for debate among the actresses he has chosen to work with, with big names such as Kristen Dunst and Nicole Kidman joining in on the dialogue, the latter admitting her working relationship was strained with him, but that the duo maintains a friendship.

In 2018, von Tier somehow managed to lasso a way back into Cannes. He’d bring with him The House that Jack Built, a two-hour-and-thirty-minute epic that would be met with nearly 100 walkouts, a standing ovation by those who remained in the theater, and a barrage of polarizing reviews that made it clear the director seemed to be taking delight in the uproars he has instigated.

Since the hoopla surrounding its debut, the film, which exists in an R-rated and NC-17 cut, has circulated through various streaming services, where more and more unsuspecting viewers are confronted by a Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer-styled think-piece that seems to welcome the squirms of disgust it happily initiates, which in turn has allowed it to begin crawling its way into the discussions of the most disturbing motion pictures in.

It’s a list that von Tier is no stranger to and something that undoubtedly makes him grin like the Cheshire Cat.

THE HORRIFYING TRUTH:

Since 2018, the grumblings and rumblings over The House that Jack Built have far from quieted down. Led by a career-high performance from Dillion and handsome direction out of von Tier, who makes arguably his most self-indulgent shock piece to date, there is barely a square foot of this film that doesn’t get off on prodding and provoking.

Yet there is far more than just visual gruel to make you queasy, as the onion-like layers peel back to reveal something you’re destined to chew over like a stale piece of gum.

Given that von Tier harbors a particularly sick sense of humor, he knew that centering much of the film’s intensely credible violence around women, children, and one poor duckling would dropkick the beehive and leave the masses buzzing (would you expect anything less from a guy who notoriously has strained relationships with the women he works with?).

And while I’d never brand the on-screen violence in The House that Jack Built to be any worse than what you’d glimpse in your average Saw movie, it’s the snarky meditations and verbal vitriol croaked out of Jack himself, who mocks and berates through vocal cords that sound like they have marinated in cigarette smoke and barrel-aged whiskey transported back from 1980.

Oh, you best believe Jack’s cocky cruelty knows no bounds, particularly in the fourth incident where he butchers a young woman he calls “Simple.” Using a serrated kitchen knife, he saws off her breasts, leaving one under the windshield wiper of a cop car and fashioning the other into a wallet he proudly brandishes at the gun store cash register. And while the flayed skin, smashed faces, and bullet-riddled corpses pile up in the frame, Jack and von Tier aren’t content with keeping the revulsion chained to the visual.

The abuse becomes psychologically triggering as Jack taunts, berates, and lectures his subjects, with “Simple” feeling the brunt of his disdain over men always being labeled the “bad guy.”

Once you’ve got a clear vision of the creator, it’s not difficult to ascertain that von Tier is most likely airing his grievances over the accusations lobbed against him in the wake of the #MeToo movement, leaving you in serious awe (the jury is still out on good awe or bad awe) of his steely audacity to unpack this dirty laundry in front of us (his pro-Nazi scandal is also addressed in a disquieting reel of the Third Reich’s savagery).

But the question is presented to you early on in THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT – can you separate art from the artist? That’s the challenge here, and you’ll be consistently put to the test as he stitches it to himself.

It’s no coincidence that von Tier would select a serial killer as his subject, preying upon America’s ever-growing fascination with true crime.

It’s no secret that we can’t resist the latest Netflix documentary, gorging on an all-you-can-eat buffet of serial killers to the point that it becomes a national news headline about the concerns over individuals trying to dress as Jeffrey Dahmer for Halloween. According to von Tier, it almost seems like we are glorifying them, finding some sick pleasure in marveling at the atrocities they have cast into the world.

But here’s where von Tier springs the trap on us: when HE makes a movie about a serial killer and shines a light on the awful things they did (Jack becomes an amalgamation of Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Lawrence Bittaker, Dahmer, and others), we are absolutely mortified and quick to vilify him. But haven’t we been begging for this kind of stuff all along?

So, is The House that Jack Built deserving of its budding infamy? Yes, for the most part.

At once, the on-screen carnage is more suggested than overtly shown, yet what we do see is appropriately potent enough to curl your toes.

From an implied standpoint, it’s off the charts, with a general aura of “hold my beer” kind of enthusiasm to leap over the line with reckless abandon. The gunning down of children is cold (and then forcing their mother to feed their corpses pie is even colder), and the duckling scene is a jaw-dropper sure to make you cover your eyes.

(Rest assured that von Tier didn’t hurt an actual duckling, and PETA actually praised the sequence for the way it illuminates the connection between animal cruelty and the budding signs of a psychopath.)

Yet, for every kick to the head The House that Jack Built dishes out, it is quick to serve you an Advil on a silver platter (queasy chuckles and David Bowie needle drops ease some of the uncomfortable horror and tension), polished with OCD flair while it points furiously at the darkest recesses of art and the artist.

It’s ultimately these debates that linger in the air like gunpowder.

There’s quite a bit to digest once the curtain closes on Jack and his reign of terror, that is, if you’ll be able to keep all that von Tier has forced you to bite off down in the first place.

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