Lars von Trier’s brutally violent serial killer confessional is a film only he could have made
No matter the genre Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier hides behind, he’s almost always making a horror movie. The troublemaker director’s aesthetic – blending pseudo-documentary, hand -held camera POV with rapturous sequences of fantasy – almost always pushes his work into the realm of magic-realism and whether it be the story of a simple woman driven to sexual and religious frenzy (BREAKING THE WAVES), a working-class blind, musical-obsessed mother sent to death row (DANCER IN THE DARK) or a hopelessly depressed girl whose miseries echo the coming apocalypse (MELANCHOLIA), all von Trier pictures trade in his art of disorientation and dread and all evoke his single-minded desire to illustrate the beauty, terror and humanity hidden within events both ordinary and extraordinary. That almost all of his protagonists are female is interesting (and has indeed caused some reactionary viewers to incorrectly label him a misogynist) and only serves to add another layer of fascination to his deeply personal, challenging and unique creative identity.
In von Trier’s latest shocker, THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT, he this time employs a male character to usher his audience into one of his most graphically violent and intentionally offensive epics to date. Like his shattering 2009 satanic sex-and-death fever dream ANTICHRIST, THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT isn’t pretending to be a horror movie, its intent is right there on the table. The film cheekily casts 80’s American teen hearthrob Matt Dillon as Jack, an engineer whose obsessions with art inadvertently lead him into a downspiraling life as a malevolent serial killer. That’s the plot, more or less and like his previous film, 2013’s brilliant and pornographic NYMPHOMANIAC, the film’s troubled central figure confesses his transgressions to an older, wiser man, here a mysterious voice whose face is mostly left unseen named “Verge” (NOSFERTAU THE VAMPYRE‘s Bruno Ganz). Jack relates the trajectory of his hideous crimes while von Trier takes immense sadistic pleasure in graphically illustrating them; from the opening tire-jack head-smash of a braying woman in distress (a shrill and effective Uma Thurman) to a poor, trusting widow who is choked and stabbed, to a girlfriend who is demeaned and debased before meeting her bloody demise to the films’s most perverse sequence, a sniper-tower obliteration or a mother and her two young children. After each episode (seperated as von Trier often does with artfully rendered text interstitials), Jack and Verge have lengthy debates about art, the creative process, morality and more, with a frenzy of stock footage – from Glenn Gould hammering on a piano, to vintage Max Fleischer cartoons – serving to support these classroom-like conversations. Then it’s back to the killing, as Jack collects his victims and begins carefully displaying them in his industrial meat locker.
THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT has already amassed much controversy, with its studio refusing to buckle and cut the film to appease the MPAA (an R-rated cut and unrated version are both available On Demand and in select theaters) and audience members drifting out of festival screenings in droves. And while all the brutally violent carnage listed above is in place to intentionally create such emotional and visceral disruptions, what some are failing to note is that THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT is also one of von Trier’s funniest movies to date. That’s right, not only do all the director’s pictures function as secret horror movies, they’re also blackly comic and here, with the stone-faced, deadpan Dillon pontificating and killing ad nauseum, one gets the feeling that the director is having the time of his life. It’s almost as if von Trier IS both Jack and Verge, trying in vain to defend himself against critics who have long claimed him to be a degenerate, here using the characters as his avatars. At one point, Verge notes that all the primarily female victims Jack encounters are oddly inept, all of them acting irrationally and bizarrely naive and often Verge accuses Jack of transposing his own skewed sense of reality and innate mistrust of women onto his anecdotes of butchery. It’s like the director is having a fluid internal monologue with his audience and himself. It’s a mesmerizing conceit and one that echoes Mary Harron’s AMERICAN PSYCHO in that at many points, Jack’s tales of murder are so cartoonish, we’re left to wonder if our storyteller is either making it all up or simply out of his mind entirely, a frustrated artist whose fantasies and delusions have gotten the upper hand. And by the time the movie literally goes to Hell and stings its Baroque finale with the funniest closing credits music ever, you’ll feel very much like the director has smashed you square in the face with cinema itself. Whether you find pleasure or pain in that ultimate effect, is entirely subjective.
And no matter your take on the picture, either as straight-forward serial killer phantasmagoria or self-reflexive meta shock-comedy (or both), one thing is indisputable: THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT is a movie that ONLY Lars von Trier could have made. So many contemporary filmmakers attempt to mimic his voice and all of them fail. Because that voice is singular. He’s the most evolved and refined purveyor of bad taste in film history and this is just another brick in the house he himself continues to build.