(Note: This is a review for the director’s cut of The House that Jack Built. Unfortunately, only the R-rated theatrical cut is currently available in the United States. The theatrical version has been shortened by roughly five minutes due to violent content.)
Watching Lars von Trier’s latest provocation, The House that Jack Built, my mind kept drawing comparisons between the filmmaker and another divisive artist: Kanye West. Both are mired in self-inflicted controversy, occasionally problematic and seek attention at every turn. They also create art that’s difficult to ignore. Basically, they’re complete tools with immense talent.
Back in May, The House that Jack Built premiered at Cannes to mass walkouts and indignation over its extreme depictions of violence. Then, IFC Films was hit with sanctions by the MPAA after a one-night-only screening of the director’s cut last month. It wouldn’t be a new von Trier film if there wasn’t a whirlwind of debate surrounding its release, and he prefers it that way. Nearly everything he does is intended to inspire outrage, and the resulting backlash only feeds his ego. I mean, this is a guy who puts himself on his own posters, for cryin’ out loud.
The portrait of the artist as a narcissist is an old trope, so it’s noteworthy how his newest effort, recently released on VOD, still manages to offer a genuinely shocking experience. Yes, viewers with weak stomachs may find themselves unable or unwilling to endure the startling gore, but what’s surprising is how The House that Jack Built is one of 2018’s funniest films and a brutally honest examination of criticisms that have plagued von Trier’s career — mainly his penchant for punishing characters (not to mention the audience), as well as accusations of misogyny.
Jack (Matt Dillon) is a remorseless serial killer. Or he was, perhaps. Voiceover dialogue between him and a man named Verge (Bruno Ganz) indicates Jack is being led on a lengthy trek into the afterlife (a sort of River Styx scenario). Along the way, he confesses to Verge five separate “incidents” to chart his prolific side-gig as a murderer.
These incidents account for the bulk of the film’s 155-minute runtime, and they begin in a fairly tame manner considering all the word-of-mouth leading up to them. We witness Jack’s initial murder, which happens circumstantially when he stops to help a middle-aged woman (Uma Thurman) whose car has broken down on a desolate road. Turns out, like most of Jack’s victims, she’s a rude and obnoxious dimwit. That would be a lazy creative decision, yet these are simply the victims as Jack remembers them. He sees nothing wrong with his own actions, and the people who happen to fall in his crosshairs have obviously done this to themselves.
As the story progresses, the killings grow increasingly depraved and elaborate. Those unfamiliar with von Trier’s work should come in mentally prepared for a couple upsetting scenes of violence. The first involves the shooting of a mother and her two sons on a hunting trip, and the second is Jack’s mutilation of a girlfriend after she learns something is deeply wrong with her man. It’s almost necessary, then, for every sequence to be packed with enough dark (very, very dark) humor to make one question their own morals for laughing.
Much of said humor stems from our killer’s OCD and anal-retentive tendencies that cause him to have meltdowns when a minor hiccup occurs during a murder. Jack stabs an old widow in her home and obsessively cleans every corner to erase his presence. Once he’s ready to escape in his creepy serial-killer van, however, images of blood smears under the furniture invade his thoughts and force him to go back inside and double-check. This process repeats itself, despite the sounds of police sirens closing in. Not only does it seem to be a pitch-perfect visualization of OCD behavior, it’s a moment of stark comedic relief that’s all the more effective given its macabre context.
In between describing the incidents, Jack argues with Verge about various grandiloquent art forms: classical music, architecture, painting, wine, etc. These mini-lectures all serve to examine the nature of art and the parameters people use to define it. See, Jack considers himself an artist, and a great one at that. For art to transcend its medium, it must become iconic, and to achieve such a status, he claims, there can be no moral boundaries. Jack employs a wide range of methods, including taxidermy and photography, to turn his atrocities into what he deems art.
It doesn’t take long to realize this character is a stand-in for von Trier, and Jack and Verge’s debates (set to paintings, documentary snippets and even, of course, footage from von Trier’s previous films) serve to acknowledge that, yeah, Lars knows he’s a bit full of it. We are in no way meant to sympathize with Jack; The art he creates is meaningless, a mere excuse to indulge in his worst, vile impulses. “Mr. Sophistication” is Jack’s serial-killer moniker, and that’s a blatant self-own by a filmmaker for whom pretentious has become a redundant adjective.
The interludes are where the movie tends to falter. There’s wit to be found in von Trier’s blatant self-deprecation and analysis, but these detours can grow tiresome and dryly academic. I really don’t need a five-minute Powerpoint lecture over grape fermentation or 20th-century German architecture, even if that pretension is partly the point.
Dillon is given the unenviable task of portraying an irredeemable psychopath, and he does so with astonishing verve. His performance is stunningly consistent as a monster wearing human skin. It’s understandable why random folks would find him approachable, or even charming, at a glance. Jack has all the moves down pat. Still, take a closer look, and you’ll see an emptiness lurking that only comes to the surface when he allows it to.
This film has a particular audience in mind. You’re either down with von Trier’s wild, rambling works of self-indulgence or you aren’t. Many will bash this as insufferable drivel, and others (for right or wrong reasons) will proclaim it a masterwork. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. The House that Jack Built is a lot of things: thrilling, arrogant, hilarious, self-serious, dull, offensive, you name it. What it isn’t, though, is ordinary. It’s an unfiltered tour through a mind unlike anything else in cinema right now. Personally, I’m thankful for the opportunity to visit.