Even before its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival back in May and the subsequent moral fervor that followed, Lars von Trier’s latest, the serial killer black comedy The House That Jack Built, had attracted quite a bit of controversy merely because of the director’s presence at the festival. He’d been banned years earlier for comments made at a press conference, a sort of flashpoint for the Danish director and all his detractors made manifest on the Riviera. To them, his provocations are empty and ugly gestures that grow worse with each passing year, and to be fair, that’s a perfectly reasonable reaction to the man, the Kanye West/G.G. Allin hybrid the modern cinema was destined to produce.
But The House that Jack Built, despite the panic that arose in its wake, is pretty much von Trier’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a reckoning between a public persona and the person beneath it. It’s not nearly as extreme as you might have heard — the breathless upset that dominated the French coverage of the film had me and my audience prepared for a straight-up snuff film, though it does have a few seriously stomach-churning moments — but it is a fascinating dissection of von Trier and his relationship with both himself and his critics. It may be one of the most interesting cinematic reckonings since Eastwood’s Unforgiven, which is significant praise for a movie many are likely to dismiss.
Much of The House that Jack Built is a dialogue between the disembodied voices of Jack (Matt Dillon), a Seattle-based serial killer in the early 1980s who went by the moniker Mr. Sophistication after he began mailing photos of his victims to the press, and Verge (Bruno Ganz), whose relevance to the plot only becomes obvious in the film’s epilogue. This structure is familiar to those who have seen von Trier’s last film, Nymphomaniac, but it’s done better here, as we don’t have a specific cinematic space/physical characters to return to, and thusly the film doesn’t lose so much of its momentum, nor does it underwhelm at the end. We’re presented with five scenes from his career.
In the first, Jack picks up a stranded motorist (Uma Thurman) who is having issues with her car-jack and bad things happen. In the second (the very best of the five and worthy of consideration even if you skip the rest of the film), Jack poses as an officer, then an insurance agent, to gain access to a widow’s (Sibohan Fallon Hogan) home, and bad things happen. In the third, Jack goes hunting with a family of three, and bad things happen. In the fourth, Jack falls in “love” with a woman named Simple (Riley Keough), and really bad things happen. In the fifth, Jack takes his ugliness to new heights, and bad things happen to him. All the while, we’re peppered with his commentary and digressions about a number of topics, and we glean information about him along the way. He wants, more than anything, to build a house in the Washington wilderness, a testament to himself and his architectural and engineering prowess.
Jack, despite what it seems, is only a von Trier stand-in in narration, not in action, where he’s more of a tableau of the behaviors of the American serial killer throughout history, and each incident sees him taking a different form — in the first, he’s The Freeway Killer, in the fourth, he’s Bundy, etc. — so that his motivations, at least on an animalistic level, remain obscured by his heady diatribes. Dillon is often an undervalued performer in the mainstream cinema, but the man brings it here. His physical performance has notions of the uncanny about it, and his interpretation of “the mask of sanity” is by far the film’s most essential asset. Jack is a born performer, and Dillon treats him as such. Even in his voice-over, he’s able to make asides about dessert wine and German military aircraft that manage to entertain rather than bore (though I suspect I might be a little more alone on this than I assume, given that I found each of them funny). He’s perfectly pitched, and occasionally superlative when the film drifts into its chosen genres — absurdist slapstick, grimy horror, renaissance poetry — and his work here alone is reason enough to seek out the film in either of its forms (I can’t imagine what they would cut of his best work here). His supporting cast, aside from Ganz, are mostly cannon fodder, though I’d also say that Keough does a hell of a job here bringing life to a mostly thankless role, but this film is Dillon’s as much as it is von Trier’s, and credit is due where credit is due (also along with cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro, who defines this era of von Trier’s filmography almost as much as the subject matter itself).
Anyways, despite all the unpleasantness, it’s the film’s epilogue that may be the breaking point for plenty of viewers, who are, well, emotionally and mentally prepared for the mutilation and grime of a serial killer film but not as much so for a full-on descent into metaphysical unreality. It’s in those final 15 minutes that Von Trier fully shows his hand, and it reinforces some of the film’s otherwise oblique ethics in a way that’s more satisfying than, say, Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, which, in retrospect, feels like a more self-pitying companion to this that refuses to punish the director stand-in for their transgressions. That film attempted to conceal its director’s psychological thumbprint with a message about the environment, but it still was unmistakably about how artists coldly grind up passerby to make their masterpieces.
The difference, I guess, is twofold: The House that Jack Built, at least, has the common decency to cut out the middleman and insist that the violence and the trauma inflicted on others is the sum total of this endeavor, not merely a side-effect of ambition, and it’s also that Von Trier knows he’s not escaping any of what’s coming to him. The only thing he’ll be known for is his cruelty, with the grand ambitions of his art — his life’s work — remaining unfulfilled and unfinished, superseded by his collection of mutilated corpses, preserved in a freezer right next to stacks of never-to-be-eaten frozen pizzas. And in those moments of self-recognition, we get Von Trier’s cognizance that actions do, ultimately, have consequences, and that his critics will ultimately be right.
The House That Jack Built will have its R-rated cut released in theaters on December 14, while both the unrated director’s cut (which I saw) and the R-rated version will hit video on demand on the same day.