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On Murder as Fine Art: Lars Von Trier’s The House That Jack Built

In 1827, the brilliant if underrated Thomas De Quincey—who inspired Argento’s Suspiria—penned a satirical essay titled “On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts.” Over a series of pages, De Quincey relates a conversation at a gentleman’s club, during which the artistic merit of murder is discussed (based on a series of real crimes dubbed the Ratcliffe Highway Murders) with a hysterical seriousness. De Quincey writes, “The truth is, I am a very particular man in everything relating to murder; and perhaps I carry my delicacy too far.” He describes a character who is led “into constant disparagements of all modern murders as vicious abortions, belonging to no authentic school of art. The finest performances of our own age he snarled at cynically.”

To me, Lars Von Trier’s long awaited recent masterpiece, The House That Jack Built (2018), reads as an extension of De Quincey’s essay. Both De Quincey and Von Trier emphasize the “passion of sudden death” and quote Paradise Lost. Both regard murder as a source of entertainment or event profit: De Quincey’s character toast to “the sublime epoch of Burkism and Harism!” — a reference to the bodysnatchers who made money off the sale of corpses, though De Quincey is careful to point out that the conceit of death as a trade and corpses as profitable that goes back to the Roman times (a subject also explored by horror movies like Val Lewton’s The Body Snatcher or Roger Corman’s hilarious Comedy of Terrors). While Von Trier does not take the perspective of men celebrating murder, but instead follows the activities of a murderer (a really incredible performance from Matt Dillon, one of the best of his career even though he neglects to wear a cut-off T-shirt as in Over the Edge) over an extended period.

Because this is a Von Trier film, it does not follow the simple narrative structure of a thriller like Silence of the Lambs, but includes surreal flights of fantasy and lengthy confessional sequences. But this black humor and biting social criticism—which also fueled De Quincey’s essay—was unsurprisingly lost on a wide segment of film critics and fans, leading to a dramatic Cannes opening, a single-day theatrical release in the US, a cut streaming version of the film, and a general outcry on the internet. For example, there are apparently a hundred cry babies at Cannes, who walked out of the film’s premier even though they presumably knew what they were getting themselves into by simply taking a seat at a Von Trier serial killer film. To me Von Trier’s career in general and particularly The House That Jack Built has served as a recent locus point for relentless critical posturing and self-congratulatory pearl clutching. I can’t help but picture Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971), red in the face, hair frazzled, and forehead veins throbbing, screaming “I SAID GOOD DAY SIR!” This is also summed up by a review from Richard Brody, who makes it difficult not to picture him frothing at the mouth with lines like: “He’s the cinematic counterpart to the right-wing trolls who, in the mild guise of frank confrontation with difficult ideas, seek to normalize and extend the reach of their destructive program.”

Destructive program? I genuinely fail to understand how a clearly satirical film about a whinging serial killer is supposed to promote violence against women, sexual violence, or murder. If you are someone who thinks that art should be nice, safe, pleasing, and all around milquetoast, The House That Jack Built is something you should avoid at all costs, for it quite self-consciously seeks to disturb. If anything, Von Trier’s film reminds me of the work of other controversial Central European filmmakers: Paul Verhoeven, the late Andrzej Zulawski, and even Roman Polanski. If The House That Jack Built reminds me of any particular cinematic work, it’s Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), a nearly 15-hour television opus that follows the crimes—most of them against women—of a pathetic male protagonists, ending with a similarly operatic descent into a hellish fantasy world. But unlike its often warm, loving protagonist Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lamprecht), who is driven to crime by a life of desperation and poverty, Jack is privileged, comfortable, and utterly unsympathetic. Jack constantly refers to his crimes as art and his pop icons are figures like Hitler and Stalin. On a fundamental level, he is ridiculous, to be laughed at rather than pitied.

Jack’s entire tale is essentially a confession, a lengthy and sometimes wheedling excuses for his actions. Confessional elements appear in many of Von Trier’s films, particularly those to come before The House That Jack Built, like Dancer in the Dark (2000), Dogville (2003), Antichrist (2009), Melancholia (2011), and especially Nymphomaniac (2013). It is also a central component of his early serial killer film, the dazzling The Element of Crime (1984). Extensive narration or confessional discussions between characters is undeniably a mainstay of Von Trier’s films, here taking the form of Jack’s voice overs and his conversations with Verge—a final performance from the great Bruno Ganz as a stand in for Virgil of the Divine Comedy. The House That Jack Built also continues the fairy tale elements of Antichrist, and the fable-like construction of Nymphomaniac.

I’ve seen critics railing about the film’s artificiality, which I found to be particularly tiresome. Like the worlds found in the films of Fassbinder, The House That Jack Built exists in a fantasy space set outside of time and history: it is ostensibly Washington State in the 1970s and ‘80s, but there is no mistaking the fairytale-like Scandinavian forests where much of the film takes place. Do you really think a director as meticulous and detail oriented—the film constantly pokes fun at his obsessive compulsive tendencies—would not be able to get period detail right if he really wanted to?

Like De Quincey’s essay, much of the film serves as an allegorical exploration of the relationship between violence and art. In this sense, it is somewhat reminiscent of the television series Hannibal (2013-2015), which also looked at crime and murder not only as a symptom of social decay, but as the ultimate expression of fine art. Von Trier seems to be asking what film is capable of, but also what we are capable of tolerating as viewers. Like the Surrealists of the ‘20s or the Vienna Aktionists of the ‘60s, he seems to be asking if something can be disgusting and disturbing while also serving as art and entertainment. His references to the concept of “noble rot”—of social decay—and the beauty of ruins, a nod at fascist ideology, are perhaps obvious parallels to Trumpism.

I’ve spent perhaps an inordinate amount of time thinking and writing about serial killers, specifically depictions of serial killers in art and film. Something I discussed in my forthcoming book on Fritz Lang’s M (1931)—one of the first great serial killer films ever made, which effectively established the formula for the serial killer as protagonist—is that art and criminal psychology seem to suggest that modernity itself birthed the psychopath. This theme can also be found in Hitchcock’s various explorations of serial murder onscreen from The Lodger (1927) to Shadow of a Doubt (1942), the planned but unfilmed Kaleidoscope, and Frenzy (1972), the latter of which certainly serves as a forebearer to The House That Jack Built with its misogynistic and charismatic antagonist (Barry Foster as the terrifying Bob Rusk).

Like the killers in those films, Jack is a husk of a person defined solely by his hatred (particularly a hatred for women), his lust for violence. Matt Dillon said, “Jack is void of any sense of self at his core, which is why he morphs into so many different people—he takes on different personalities, it’s not a split personality.” The scene of Jack practices acting human, trying on different expressions, is among my favorite in the film. Many horror films in general, but specifically serial killer film, treat the flesh as a canvas: both the body of the predator and the bodies of his prey are grounds with which to experiment. In the case of Von Trier, he often uses these male characters as a way to express toxic behavior patterns and institutions within society. As Amy Simmons writes, “If women are driven to extremes in Lars von Trier’s films, it is never in doubt that it is men who drive them there. His male characters largely represent the brutality of the world: reason, authority and domination, while the women are often the embodiment of sacrifice, suffering, and the battle with patriarchy.”

To me, The House That Jack Built is a scathing attack on misogyny, male privilege, apathy, bald self-justification, and, most importantly, humorlessness. Both despite and because of its horrific violence, The House That Jack Built is a deeply funny film and that humor, however bleak and crushing, provides an unexpected source of warmth and humanity. While Von Trier has explored many of these themes consistently throughout his career, the humor adds a welcome balance lacking in some of his earlier films. For example, Dogville is a brutally cruel film, perhaps the cruelest I’ve ever seen (it is also a masterpiece). It is also brutally anti-misogynistic, a film where one woman’s abuse is systematic and public, perpetrated by an entire community who justify their increasingly horrific actions. For me, this is perhaps the most important message of Von Trier’s career: he insists that abuse and violence does not occur in private, behind closed doors, but always in the open and with the tacic consent—and sometimes enthusiastic participation—of whole communities. Antichrist (2009), for example, posits the medieval witchhunts as a calculated genocide against women. There is a key sequence that highlights this theme in The House That Jack Built, with the murder of a character Jack dubs Simple (Riley Keough in a wonderful performance).

Simple is the only character with which Jack is shown to have any real intimacy and she is ostensibly his girlfriend; there’s a touching sequence where they speak over red toy telephones in different rooms of the same apartment and she begs him not to leave her. But this moment of intimacy forces Jack to reveal his true nature and he admits to Simple that he is going to kill her, resulting in a scene that is both chilling and depressing. I think this murder is central to the film and to Von Trier’s premise that victimization is systemic. Von Trier claimed to have done extensive research on serial killers for the film and I couldn’t help but be reminded of several real life incidents during this sequence. At one point, Simple screams for help and Jack mocks her, saying that no one will care—and no one does—evoking the murder of Kitty Genovese, a New York woman killed outside her apartment building in 1964 while dozens of onlookers allegedly ignored her screams. Later, in the devastating scene between Simple and Jack, they stumble into a cop car on the street and Simple tells the officer that Jack is going to murder her. Jack confirms her story, but the cop assumes they are drinking, tells them to get control of themselves, and drives off. While this is not an exact replica of an event that occured between Jeffrey Dahmer, one of his young victims—Konerak Sinthasomphone, just 14 years old—and Milwaukee police, it’s close enough to get the message across: victims don’t matter.

Aside from the act of murder itself, the common link between real life serial killers is often that they are often able to carry on undetected because they select victims who are seemingly invisible: from Jack the Ripper to more contemporary examples like the prolific Green River Killer Gary Ridgeway to the Alaskan Butcher Baker Killer Robert Hansen to Truck Stop Killer Robert Rhoades, this is a recurring theme. It is a particularly chilling element in Netflix’s recent Confessions of a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, where it is stated over and over that dozens of young women just disappeared, seemingly into a void. As with Bundy, Jack’s victims are not prostitutes, runaways, or children living in poverty, they are women from a seemingly wide swathe of society. I believe it was Richard Brody, in his typically pompous review of The House That Jack Built, who asked if we need another serial killer film—apparently missing the point that this is not another paint-by-number serial killer thriller. The same goes for the outcry over The Ted Bundy Tapes, where people become particularly hysterical over whether or not Bundy is viewed as attractive (!), equally missing the point that serial killers are often the type of men that you encounter everyday.

Jack uses a notable character type also present throughout many of Von Trier’s other films, a type that also turns up in the work of other controversial directors like David Cronenberg: the inert, self-absorbed male protagonist. This figure can be found in Dogville, Antichrist, and Nymphomaniac, among others, and is a protagonist or central male lead who belives himself to be morally superior—especially to women—but seems incapable of direct action. This character type, but particularly Jack, is the embodiment of the incel through his constant attempts to prove he is right: that his actions are reasonable or defensible, that he has in some way been wronged and is getting revenge against the world. In his review, Brody notes with distaste that Jack complains to tied up woman—whom he is about to kill—that men are “born guilty,” apparently missing that joke all together.

Jack wants to be caught—he’s practically begging for it—but like clumsily scrawled plea of Lipstick Killer William Heirens, who wrote “for heaven’s sake catch me before I kill more, I cannot control myself” at one of his own crime scenes, it is to little avail. This is also a theme of The Ted Bundy Tapes, where it seems incredible that Bundy’s bold predation—on crowded college campuses and often in broad daylight—did not prevent him from being caught in a timely fashion. I’ve seen some inept and disappointing responses that The House That Jack Built is a backlash against the #MeToo movement, which is just absurd. If anything, it’s a backlash against the stubborn refusal to be challenged by art, the refusal to acknowledge nuancy and complexity. It uses operatically heightened violence, black humor, and delightful irony to attempt to acknowledge some harsh truths—that predators don’t look like monsters, but like normal men, men whose crimes are enabled by their own communities—which, at least to me, are the same harsh truths that the #MeToo movement aims to expose.

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is Associate Editor of Diabolique Magazine and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin from Spectacular Optical, and her book on Fritz Lang's M is forthcoming from Auteur Publishing.

One comment

  1. Clever and clear analysis of a brilliant satirical movie in times without humor or witt. To me its impossible to understand how a movie in wich the main character goes literally to hell and is punished with eternal damnation in Dante´s Inferno can be interpreted as an inmoral or even reactionary film, when is so clear that we are in front of a moral (not exactly moralistic) play. I think this is the only interesting serial killer movie in the last ten years or so, mainly because is not a thriller, but a highly sophisticated visual essay on evil, crime, art, society and history.

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