Lars Von Trier just loves to provoke, and frankly we shouldn’t be surprised by this anymore. Antichrist (2009) featured graphic mutilation and subversive imagery to wring exceptional despair from a dying relationship, while his magnum opus of misery Nymphomaniac (2014) cast a bleak eye towards sex addiction. Earlier this year he returned to Cannes, where he has religiously shown his new films to shocked audiences and was declared a persona non gratas after a controversial remark about Adolf Hitler. What’s the logical next move for such a controversial figure? Well, a sprawling near three-hour film about a serial killer and the notion of violence as art starring Matt Dillon (Drugstore Cowboy) of course!
The House that Jack Built is told through an episodic structure of five incidents (Jack’s preferred terms for his murders) and an epilogue. Each incident recalled through a voice over to his unwilling companion Verge (Bruno Ganz- Downfall). Verge accosts Jack for his cynicism, and depraved obsession with violence as a form of artistic expression. He warns Jack at the beginning “Do not think you will tell me anything I haven’t heard before”, but as the acts of cruelty increase in their severity his sarcasm and infallible tone give way to rage and disbelief, even branding Jack as an antichrist after one shocking sequence. It becomes evident early on that Verge is the embodiment of the audience and critics who chastise Von Trier for his controversial work, and Jack as a hyperbolic example of the violence in his work. Initially it would seem fair to view this as pretentious, and a poor plot device to hang a feature film upon. However, it utilises humour to surprising effect to prevent this for the most part, one section sees rains of biblical proportions wash away a blood trail and so naturally Jack decides this must mean God is protecting him on his self-imposed quest. This egotism is his driving force, he was a failure as an architect, but believes himself to be a murderous maestro.
He has an extreme knowledge of the arts and culture discussing content such as William Blake’s “The Tyger and the Lamb” to support his predilections, by misreading it to establish the lamb as a manifestation of weakness. His fascination with predators can be read through the cinematographic style of the film, a documentary style of shaky cam which disorientates to portray Jack’s challenging worldview. It’s done with clear intention but can feel mildly distracting, especially in quieter moments of the film. Which actually make up a fair amount of the film’s runtime, which can become tiresome as certain topics or metaphors are over explained. Not that you’ll be wishing to return to the incidents too soon though.
The incidents are the main reason the film has gained the notoriety Lars Von Trier is currently enjoying, and Matt Dillon is doing his hardest to distance himself from. It’s not without reason either, a lot of the content in this film will be troubling for most audiences. And if Lars is going to discuss the mentality behind violent acts in great depth, you can bet he’s going to give visual aids. The early incidents are almost darkly humourous, scouring a very dark topic and utilising an incidental tone for comic relief. However, from incident 3 onwards the mood shifts, Jack is assured in himself and the presentation of his acts shifts to a nastier, more maligned stance. Were it not for Matt Dillon’s excellent performance it could venture into the category of needlessly miserable in this second half, but he embodies the narcissistic killer with such grotesque passion that he pulsates pure rage in every scene. The epilogue also takes a left turn that contains such imaginative imagery, it’s worth pushing through all the gore to reach.
The House that Jack Built is Lars Von Trier’s biggest attack on his audience yet, he revels in creating moments of discomfort and in that field he’s excelled here. It’s not perfect, certain moments are drawn out too long, stretching Jack’s arrogant belief of his work as art between chapters to breaking point. It does succeed in being a challenging piece of work that’s sure to get under everyone’s skin at some point.