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The House That Jack Built

The House That Jack Built, 2018

During some sort of vague journey, Jack (Matt Dillon) regales his companion Verge (Bruno Ganz) with stories of his exploits as a serial killer. Through a series of disturbing incidents--supposedly a random sampling of his prolific career--we see Jack's methods and hear about his notion of murder as a kind of art form.

There's something just kind of exhausting about people who can only make intellectual arguments with a big smirk on their face. I'm sure we've all had arguments online with people like this: they fight tooth and nail about some pedantic point, and then the moment you bring up a counterpoint or poke a hole in their logic, all of a sudden they seem to go out of their way to make it clear that they were just debating for fun, that they aren't taking any of this seriously, etc. There's a kind of cowardice to it, and it makes it hard to want to invest any mental or emotional energy in someone who wants the shape and noise of a discussion but without any introspection.

This is how I mostly felt watching The House That Jack Built. While, yes, ostensibly a horror film about a compulsive serial killer, a lot of runtime is spent with Jack's musings about the nature of art, while Verge casually bats back at a few of the more obvious flaws in his argument.

The positive side of this film is certainly Dillon's performance. Dillon has an everyman charm about him, and as with most actors or actresses I think of as having "nice vibes", there's always a bit of a jolt to see them as someone villainous. He really walks the line between genuine menace and the dark comedy that the film is after. In one sequence where he tries to talk his way into a woman's house (a wonderfully poker-faced Siobhan Hogan), he flails between confidence, frustration, embarrassment, impatience, and slyness. As with many serial killer films with attractive, charismatic leads, it is kind of shocking how many dead bodies you can get through while still sensing some element of likability about a character.

I will also grant the film that a handful of moments are effective. And, actually, the very last sequence was probably the one where I felt the film made a good point. In the end
WARNING: spoilers below
Jack is trying to reach a mysterious door by scaling a steep rock wall. Despite all he's done, some part of me wanted him to succeed because I wanted to see what was behind the door. This scene---which I took to be allegorical about the way that we cheer for art/artists even at the expense of the pain and suffering of others because we want to see that brilliant unknown--felt like it made its point in an interesting way.

But a lot of the film . . . .meh. I'm not all that interested in trying to decide which elements of the film were intentionally annoying and which were unintentionally so. For example, two of the victims who are killed are over-the-top unlikable or stupid. The first victim, in particular, is unbelievably (and I mean that literally) awful. Is this meta commentary on the way that some horror films frame female victims so that we can feel okay about seeing them slaughtered? Don't know. In another sequence, Jack rails against the fact that women have an advantage because men are all "born guilty". Of course, the on-the-nose irony is that he's complaining about men being stereotyped as violent in the moments before he starts slicing open a woman he's tied up.

Overall I found the whole thing too winky to take at all seriously, which dulled the effect of the killings. At the same time, it wasn't clever enough in its examination of art and murder for me to engage with the points it was trying to make. Dillon's lead performance--and some really good supporting performances--carried me through the film, but it generally failed to make much of an impression.