[Editor’s note: This article contains some spoilers for “The House That Jack Built.”]
Before Matt Dillon agreed to play the title role in “The House That Jack Built” — a disturbing and inflammatory epic about a frustrated serial killer who preys on a wide variety of women across the long span of his adult life — he asked writer-director Lars von Trier why he wanted to make such a film. According to Dillon, who spoke to IndieWire over the phone, von Trier replied that he was interested in painting a kind of self-portrait: “‘Most of the male characters in my films have been fucking idiots, but this guy is like me. [Of all the characters I’ve ever written], Jack is the one closest to myself. Except I don’t kill people.’”
Sure, Lars. Anyway, the moral of the story is that Dillon knew what he was getting into when he agreed to be in the movie. Not that it made it any easier for him to prepare for what his performance would ultimately require, or to make peace with how it might be received.
From where he was sitting at the film’s notorious Cannes premiere, Dillon had no idea that the audience was fleeing out of the theater behind him. “I didn’t really notice the walkouts,” the actor remembered. “Everyone said that people were leaving in droves, but we got a really good reception when the movie was over, so there was a polarizing thing happening.” For the star of von Trier’s inevitably controversial new opus — the first of the Danish provocateur’s works to screen at Cannes since he was banned from the festival in 2011 for saying that he empathized with Adolf Hitler — there was only one reaction that really stuck with him from that first screening: “I turned to Lars after the credits rolled and told him that it was great, and the way he looked at me, I thought, ‘Oh, fuck, I shouldn’t have said that.’ Like there was something wrong with the movie because I liked it.”
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Reflecting on the experience a few months after the fact, Dillon — a director in his own right, now putting the final touches on a documentary about Cuban scat musician Francisco Fellove — was clearly still working through his thoughts on “The House That Jack Built,” as well as his conflicted decision to play its protagonist. Was there something wrong with the movie because he liked it, or is there something wrong with him because he agreed to be in it?
While Dillon is adamant that neither of those things are necessarily true, the actor — disturbingly brilliant in the film, and more thoughtful and contemplative about its meaning than a proud troll like von Trier would ever allow himself to be — was careful with his words and candid about his doubts throughout our hour-long conversation.
Well-aware that reviews have labeled “The House That Jack Built” as “repulsive, toxic trash” and a “narcissistic, ugly slog,” and that even some of the raves — of which there were several — have taken exception to Jack’s constant violence towards women (von Trier has been accused of misogyny both on and off-screen), Dillon would often stop mid-sentence if he feared that he might sound glib, and he repeatedly cited his reservations about collaborating with the “Dancer in the Dark” auteur in the first place.
“There was a period of time where I was like, ‘I can’t do this movie,’” Dillon said. “This subject was really daunting and difficult. It was troubling, in a way. And yet, there was a part of me that was really excited by the creative potential of the whole thing. Von Trier is an uncompromising visionary, one of the true masters, and here we’d be exploring a part of human nature that we know so little about. I can’t think of many movies that have really gone into the inferno.”
Their shared interest in the abyss notwithstanding, Dillon was initially skeptical of why von Trier wanted to cast him in the role of a sociopathic monster; the idea may not seem like much of a curveball for a filmmaker who’s previously hired everyone from Björk to Shia LaBeouf, but Dillon couldn’t help but flinch when he saw the pitch heading his way. “‘Why me!?’” the actor remembered thinking. “‘What gave you the impression that I’d be a good guy to play a serial killer?’” When he asked von Trier that question outright, the response he got may have made him wish he’d kept his mouth shut: “He told me he liked my face!”
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Von Trier liked Dillon’s face, Dillon liked von Trier’s films, and they were off to the races. And though the actor was quick to claim that the shoot itself was “a lot of fun,” and not nearly as dark as watching the finished product might have you believe, there were still a number of moments along the way that forced him to reconsider to be a part of it.
“I wasn’t sure about the opening scene with Uma Thurman,” he said, referring to a long and peculiar sequence in which a taciturn Jack reluctantly stops to help a stranded motorist, who then goads him into murdering her. Jack beats the woman to death with her own car jack, and the savagery is no less difficult to watch just because the victim helped to encourage it along. “It felt to me like the only time that Jack was passive,” Dillon said, “but then it became clear to me: It’s all in Jack’s head! Uma’s character is very real, but when she starts talking, the words we hear… that’s his inner thinking. I told Lars and he gave me a look like ‘you caught me.’”
But that part barely fazed him compared to a scene towards the middle of the film in which Jack visits a girlfriend to whom he condescendingly refers as “Simple” (Riley Keough). After telling an uninterested police officer that he’s murdered 67 people and is eager for Simple to be the 68th, Jack makes good on his threat. First he berates the girl and mocks her helplessness; then he traces two black lines around the bottom of her breasts like a plastic surgeon and amputates them both. It’s hard to watch, even by von Trier’s standards.
“I almost didn’t do the movie because of the Riley sequence,” Dillon said. “It was difficult for me, and it only got harder on the day, because Riley is very believable at being terrified. And making someone that frightened is just something that I don’t ever want to do to anybody. But that’s what this film is. It’s fiction, and I feel like it’s kinda lame to bring that kind of morality to the set. You have to look at the thing and say, ‘I’m playing this character, and this character has no empathy. He’s like a person who was born sick, he’s got a malady, and he’s missing this very natural component the vast majority of human beings have.”
“Which I have,” he added quickly. “Sure, I can get angry, and I’m a pretty intense person, but I have empathy.”
For Dillon, empathy is the difference between valuable art and vile atrocities. It’s why Jack isn’t able to make anything useful out of his murders, but a film about him could premiere at the world’s most prestigious festival. Still reflecting on the sequence with Keough, and on the obvious irony of his character’s belief that he is the victim of his violent encounters, Dillon traced the line that separates von Trier from his screen persona: “Lars is not the voice of Jack, he’s creating a discussion between all these different people. This is a film about a failed artist as much it is a film about a serial killer. The reason why Jack is a failed artist is because he’s lacking empathy. You can’t do anything good without it.”
Dillon’s words brought to mind one of Jack’s memorable soliloquies: “Some people claim that the atrocities we commit in our fiction are those inner desires we cannot commit in our controlled civilization, so they are expressed instead in our art. I don’t agree. I believe heaven and hell are one and the same. The soul belongs to heaven, and the body to hell. The soul is the reason, and the body is all the dangerous things.” Watching “The House That Jack Built” from Dillon’s perspective, the film erases the chasm between those two stratified realms. It becomes von Trier’s latest and most personal attempt to parody himself, to push at the limits of artistic expression, to confront the fact that good and bad co-exist within us all, and to laugh at the truth that — deep down — even the most wretched of people believes themselves worthy of redemption.
The further the film goes along the more demented Jack becomes, and the more demented Jack becomes the clearer he devolves into an avatar for his creator. This dynamic isn’t especially subtle: At one point, von Trier cuts footage of his previous films into this one, as if his professional trajectory runs parallel to Jack’s killings. It’s a brutal (if smirking) self-own for a filmmaker whose work is often treated like some kind of criminal act, and an unusually candid attempt for an auteur to better understand their own artistic impulses.
For better or worse, “The House That Jack Built” finds von Trier having an 150-minute conversation with himself. Nearing the end of a long and rancorous body of work, von Trier is effectively performing an autopsy on himself (Dillon brushed off the rumors that this will be the director’s last film: “What else is he gonna do?”).
“I like that Lars embraces the controversy of it all,” Dillon said, “and he loves to be polarizing — that’s just part of his uncompromising nature. But he’s not an evil person. This film is not an evil act. This is an exploration and a meditation of evil. It’s a work of art. I’ve taken some flak for saying this, but I think it’s okay for the audience to be disturbed by it! Yeah, it’s entertainment…”
He paused. Then: “Actually, I don’t know about that. Let me go back. It’s not entertainment in the traditional sense, but it’s a fictional thing. Nobody was harmed making this movie.”
If anything, Dillon thinks that people might be helped by watching it. “It’s a wake-up call!” he said. “It’s Lars’ version of saying, ‘Hey, this is going on in the world, and to pretend it’s not is hypocritical. There’s a lot of hypocrisy in society and the way we look at what’s acceptable and what’s not.’” He returned to the scene with Simple, which continues to gnaw at him, and suggested that the apathetic police officer is an expression of a society that has its priorities out of whack — that is more offended by a threat to their sensibilities than they are to their actual safety.
Case in point: When von Trier made a comment about Hitler at that Cannes press conference, he was banned. But “The House That Jack Built” contains a sequence that revisits the same idea more earnestly, and it was invited to the festival for a black-tie gala screening. “People are outraged because they had to throw on their evening wear to go see a movie like this,” Dillon said. “Or maybe their outrage could be more geared towards some real shit that’s going on!” He may not be anything like the character he plays in this movie, but they can’t help but share the same voice.
“I’m very against censorship,” the actor continued. “The First Amendment? That’s one I’ll go along with. The Second Amendment? Not so much. And Lars is practicing that. He’s courageous. He’s not courageous in every aspect of his life, but as a filmmaker he’s got a lot of guts. What’s so great about Lars is that he gives you permission to do whatever you want. The camera is handheld, it follows you, so can go wherever you want. He allows for the potential for failure at all times. Even after the movie is done! I can say whatever the fuck I want about the experience. If people get upset, he just says ‘blame me.’ That’s why actors are treated so well in his films, and people like working with him.”
Dillon brushed off a reminder that — on the set of von Trier’s “Dogville” — the cast required a confessional booth on set where they could air their grievances about the director. The recordings of these gripes were remarkable enough to be compiled into a film of their own. Actor Stellan Skarsgård, who has collaborated with von Trier many times over, can be heard referring to von Trier as “a hyper-intelligent child who is slightly disturbed, playing with dolls in a dollhouse, cutting their heads off with nail-clippers.”
Clearly, Dillon’s experience was a bit different. For him, it all goes back to a meal he shared with von Trier before the beginning of the shoot: “He took me out to dinner and he just said ‘Why don’t you try trusting me?’ And I thought ‘you know what? That’s a really good point.’”
Dillon may have trusted von Trier implicitly, but faith only gets you so far. Sitting down for the film’s world premiere, he was still unsure if he’d made the right decision. “I’ll be honest with you, I still had my reservations when the lights went down. There was always the potential that I would reject seeing myself play someone like this. If the movie didn’t work, I’d have played this ugly character for nothing. It’s an ego thing… you fear that you’re going to see yourself do this stuff, and it’s going to be really upsetting. And then I saw the film, and it was a real relief to me, because I said ‘Oh, of course, it’s just a character!’ It allowed me to do things I’ve never done before, and go places I’ve never gone before.”
Dillon paused, weighing the full value of the experience. “This was a great role,” he said, seemingly arriving at some peace with his decision to play it.
Whether or not there’s something wrong with the movie, or with him for making it, he’s grateful for the opportunity to stare into the abyss, and eager to see what audiences might find staring back at them. The backlash against “The House That Jack Built” may only grow more intense now that the film is available to see in the United States, but Dillon is prepared to deal with it — he’s learned from the master. “I remember the reaction the film gotat Cannes,” he said, “but I also remember Lars’ reaction to the reaction. He said: ‘The groans soothe me.’”
“The House That Jack Built” is now playing in theaters and on VOD via IFC Films.