Every Lars von Trier movie feels like a dare, but nothing to date reaches the level of “The House That Jack Built,” a 155-minute portrait of a serial killer that dares to spend the duration of that running time in the confines of his disturbed mind — and, by extension, the Danish filmmaker’s as well. Mileage will vary on this graphically violent saga, which includes a few brutal death scenes involving women and children from the perspective of the man perpetuating the crimes. But its artistry transcends any precise litmus test for politically correctness. “The House That Jack Built” is an often-horrifying, sadistic dive into a psychotic internal monologue, with intellectual detours about the nature of art in the world today, and puts considerable effort into stimulating discomfort at key moments. If you meet the work on those terms, or at least accept the challenge of wrestling with impeccable filmmaking that dances across moral barriers, it’s also possibly brilliant.
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Equal parts graphic midnight movie and discursive essay on the creative process, “The House That Jack Built” stars Matt Dillon as the titular antihero, and takes its cues from his version of the story. Speaking to an unseen accented man named Verge (Bruno Ganz), Jack prepares to boast of his achievements even as Verge (phantom or shrink, we’re not quite sure) teases him that he’s heard it all. Jack embraces the challenge, announcing his plan to describe “five randomly chosen incidents over a 12-year period,” all of which involve gruesome murders. Similar to “Nymphomaniac,” the bulk of “The House That Jack Built” unfolds as a prolonged flashback that brings us up to speed on his crimes.
The first incident sets the scene in the Pacific Northwest, where Jack meets a loquacious woman (Uma Thurman) who mocks the possibility that he might be a murderer. She’s not wrong, and the bloody climax establishes that Dillon’s grinning, almost charismatic lunatic tends act out whenever he’s not in control. But in “The House That Jack Built,” the character controls everything, and naturally that means he’s an avatar for von Trier’s own obsessions with channeling his neurotic perfectionism into narrative form. As the conversations with Verge continues — and he keeps pushing back on Jack’s insistence that his murders are truly grand achievements — “The House That Jack Built” makes it clear that the movie has been designed as a veiled form of autobiography, and that’s long before the filmmaker actually cuts to a clip from one of his earlier movies.
Resurrecting the “Nymphomaniac” approach, von Trier digresses from Jack’s stories many times over, turning to still frames and archival footage as the dialogue roams through a range of topics: architecture (Jack’s original obsession), classic art, concentration camps, and even violence in movies. The monologue becomes a roving mission statement on the process of exonerating internal strife by inflicting it on others.
And so von Trier, with Jack as his vessel, does exactly that. The movie spends little time explaining the character’s upbringing or even the initial circumstances that led him to such a depraved place. Instead, it unfolds across a series of incidents so horrible they demand condemnation, while contextualizing them with an unusual density of ideas. It’s an eerie combination that hews to its own unique rhythm.
From the first chapter, von Trier cuts to black-and-white footage of Glenn Gould at the piano, underscoring Jack’s romanticization of his method (we later learn that he’s been dubbed “Mr. Sophistication”). In a fleeting glimpse of Jack’s childhood, we see him casually maim a duckling before gazing directly into the camera, and after Jack discusses “the kind of bloody frenzy an ermine experiences in a hen house,” he launches right into a discussion about William Blake’s theory of art. It’s a bizarre gamble as only von Trier would play it, but the ideas resonate in their own twisted way, reflecting the logic of a man so enamored of his depravity that he has conjured profound arguments in its defense.
Nevertheless, “The House That Jack Built” could easily devolve into bloated B-movie territory if it lacked a dynamic performance at its center. Dillon might have trouble putting this one at the top of his resume if he wants to do a Disney film, but there’s no question he delivers an impactful movie monster, with darting eyes and a toothy smile that makes Jack at once seem empathetic and bonkers.
That perception extends to those murders, which unfold as a series of Rube Goldberg inventions clearly designed to disturb, sometimes in almost too overt terms. However, the bulk of these chapters don’t go beyond the most extreme aspects of “The Human Centipede” (or, for that matter, any splatter-film extremism going back to Herschell Gordon Lewis). Instead, they illustrate the precision of Jack’s work, and his relationship to murder provides an outlet for an obsessive compulsive disorder that plagues his every move.
When thing don’t go as planned, the movie veers off into pitch black crime-gone-wrong territory that echoes early Coen brothers. One instance finds him carefully choking a woman, then returning to her house at his own peril to make sure it’s in immaculate condition even after the cops arrive; in another, he attempts to execute several victims at once, only to realize he’s purchased the wrong kind of bullet.
But many people will find those moments relatively tame compared to the two biggest shockers in Jack’s oeuvre: a terrible sequence in which he murders two children and forces their mother to feed them pie, and another involving a topless Riley Keough and a knife. The latter showdown may be a greater miscalculation than von Trier could have anticipated, as it plays more like an empty gesture to push the material past any sane person’s tolerance for brutality, but von Trier often stumbles on his path to uncompromising visions. “The House That Jack Built” is designed to leave even viewers open to its provocations in a state of perpetual unease. “If you feel like screaming, you definitely should,” Jack says, and von Trier may as well have asked him to look into the camera. It’s a risky gamble that engages and frustrates in equal measures.
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As the movie wends its way through Jack’s recollections, it leaves a dissatisfying hole in the story throughout: How did a well-spoken, literary-minded engineer by training become this violent, irredeemable monster? It’s no mistake that von Trier backs away from resolving that question, considering that the entire circumstances stem from an unreliable narrator whose final descent in the movie’s fantastical epilogue implies that nothing we see can be trusted, except the possibility that the whole movie takes place in one demented mind.
Well, two of them: There’s Matt — and there’s von Trier, who once again has used his control of the medium to revel in the most unsettling extremes of his psyche. (In a recurring motif, Jack holds up signs for the camera that tick off his range of problems, from egotism to narcissism, and there’s no ambiguity about who he’s really talking about.) “The House That Jack Built” doesn’t register as a mea culpa in any regard, but it’s the closest von Trier has come to confronting personal attacks on him and his movies, and he even uses Jack to explore the old chestnut of separating art and artist (or, in this case, “Don’t look at the axe, look at the works”). His decision to tackle charges of misogyny are heavy-handed but revealing: “Why is it always a man’s fault?” Jack shouts, brandishing a knife. “Women are always victims. Men are always criminals.” It’s a damning statement, though the movie doesn’t exactly defend it so much as it positions the assertion as a source of the condemned lunatic’s rage.
If von Trier never makes another movie, “The House That Jack Built” would be an apt career summation. In the midst of talky digressions, the filmmaker samples a shot from the climax of his own “Melancholia,” while Jack’s called an “Antichrist” and assailed by Verge for harboring “a pathetic dream of something great.” It’s easy to see how the filmmaker might engage in likeminded self-criticism late at night. “In this hell of a world, nobody wants to help!” Jack cries, as the camera zooms out to an empty world.
Jack dooms himself by attempting to rectify his anxiety with murder; von Trier directs movies. If “Melancholia” celebrated the process of making peace with emotional fragility, “Jack” tracks the opposite trajectory: what it feels like to get trapped by your own flaws to a point that makes salvation impossible. It concludes with the suggestion that even if von Trier is trapped in a private hell of his own making — or Jack, but who are we kidding — he’s still holding on for dear life.
“The House That Jack Built” premiered out of competition at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. IFC Films releases it this fall.