Can’t keep that incorrigible Danish scamp Lars von Trier down. While weathering accusations of misogyny for years, the filmmaker refused to let up with his patented brand of cinematic tomfoolery known to occasionally include a graphic genital mutilation gag. But after a spot of bother involving a Nazi sympathy joke during an interview got him banned from Cannes for the better part of a decade, it seemed both von Trier himself and his films had simply gotten too naughty for public consumption. His latest, The House That Jack Built, aims to address his past mischief head-on—but did that timeout from Cannes teach him his lesson? Has the cycle of recidivism been broken? Has he finally calmed? Oh, of course fucking not.
In The House That Jack Built, Matt Dillon (1998 MTV Movie Award Winner for Best Villain, There’s Something About Mary) portrays Jack, a haughty, American serial killer prone to cultural digressions not unlike American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman. The deliberately episodic film (it was originally intended to be a miniseries, à la Ballad of Buster Scruggs) alternates between comic and/or brutal vignettes of Jack’s murders in the Pacific Northwest, and didactic slide shows intended as Jack’s confessional (of sorts) to the mysterious Verge (Bruno Ganz). Jack’s obsessive attention to detail—otherwise invaluable to his career as an engineer—restricts his homicidal impulses at first but, much like with Bateman, his persistent inability to get caught just increasingly emboldens him, while Verge grows increasingly frustrated with the lack of insight in his pretentious expository interludes.
The House That Jack Built is a two-and-a-half hour portrait ostensibly meant to sympathetically explain the motivations of a repeat transgressor—but he only comes off as more arrogantly misanthropic as the film wears on. (The lurid depiction of what he does with his meat locker full of victims certainly doesn’t help.) With Verge as the captive, skeptical audience surrogate, Jack’s equating of murdering people to making art—never better illustrated than in his periodic attempts at building a dream home—is constantly deflated as dubious and wearyingly trite. (The Joker already boasted, “I make art until somebody dies” in Tim Burton’s Batman almost 30 years ago.) The myopically intellectual Jack only digs his heels in deeper on his insistence at being an unappreciated artist, even going so far as to replicate the “music video” for Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” on more than one occasion.
The film itself is rife with further lifts, ranging from famous classical works of music and art to David Bowie cuts and Human Centipede-esque visuals. Even some actual footage from von Trier’s ouevre (Notably, the grotesque Udo Kier-birthing scene from The Kingdom) eventually shows up because, come on, if you haven’t figured it out by now, this is Lars von Trier’s facetious confessional as much as it is Jack’s. The House That Jack Built is squarely aimed at the consummate provocateur’s detractors, with von Trier feigning contrition for his sins out one side of his mouth while hissing out the other, “You thought Nymphomaniac was fucked up? Well…”
And, typically for a von Trier, as wretched as it may objectively be, it is not without its pleasures: the actors (Dillon, Ganz, Jeremy Davies, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Uma Thurman, Riley Keough) are understatedly quirky for the subject matter, and von Trier’s direction is reliably solid—ever the beautifully realistic picture of nihilism. The film only ever drags during Jack’s interminable, self-satisfied monologues on the nature of art and how it relates to his actions. But that’s kind of the point.
Von Trier’s greatest gleeful trick of all in The House That Jack Built—ham-fisted apology “subtext” very much aside—is trolling an audience ready-built to dissect his films. Jack and von Trier bombard the film with so many (mainly art history and literature) academic references—in stark contrast to the violence—that it’s easy to ignore the fact that they’re of the lazy, 101-level variety. They’re painfully, bone-headedly obvious but, hey, more power to the guy smoking outside the theater afterwards who gets a little thrill from pointing out to his friends that he figured out what Verge’s name is short for.
As sarcastically forthcoming and funny as it is, The House That Jack Built is Lars von Trier’s most divisive and entertaining work to date; the natural culmination of all the sensibilities he’s built a career around. It’s irrefutable proof—and the apotheosis—of von Trier’s sleight-of-hand ability to get away with putting depraved shit on screens as long as it’s under the purview of Art.
The House That Jack Built (Director’s Cut)
Director: Lars von Trier
Studio: IFC Films
Runtime: 153 mins
Cast: Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Sofie Gråbøl, Riley Keough, Jeremy Davies, Ed Speleers, David Bailie, Yu Ji-tae, Osy Ikhile