Director: Lars Von Trier
Stars: Matt Dillon, Uma Thurman, Riley Keough
Having been labelled a misogynist so many times for his films of intense female suffering, the idea of Lars Von Trier making a serial killer movie about a man who preys on women ought to be shocking. But it’s not. That the film in question had festival audiences reeling and fleeing from their seats ought to be cause for arched-eyebrow curiosity. But it’s not. As skillful a director as Von Trier may be – and The House That Jack Built is technically very adept – he has built a brand around controversy, around his own ego. He’s a trickster, a merry and maudlin scamp. As powerful as his films are, he is as known for his compulsive urge to provoke. One might argue that he is Jack.
The House That Jack Built continues a style that began in the expansive Nymphomaniac. The film essentially finds Von Trier having an extended debate with himself. In Nymphomaniac his arguments were embodied by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skasgard. Here such duties go to Matt Dillon as the titular Jack and Bruno Ganz as his unseen listener, Verge. Dillon’s confessional acts as narration to the images, which flick by stylishly. Elements of Von Trier’s dogme work remain in the forever twitchy handheld camera work. This is juxtaposed with some of the more conventional sensibilities he has picked up in the years since. Some of The House That Jack Built is quite beautifully framed.
Over the course of the film, Jack tells of five incidents in which he killed people. Most of these are women who aren’t even given the credence of being named. Uma Thurman plays ‘Lady #1’, for instance. As Jack’s first kill, the film shadily suggests that she gave him the idea to become a serial killer in the first place. As though this flippancy is all the impetus it takes. Watching, one is reminded of the skillful way in which the recent fifth season of BoJack Horseman unpacked the responsibilities of making fiction about corrupt, fallible or broken men. That show made a point about how dark dramas with such antiheroes have a responsibility to ensure that they’re not acting as cultural apologists for bad behaviour, in effect giving men validation for being shitty. The House That Jack Built is exactly the kind of thing the show was targeting. The funny bad man.
Attempts at comedy feel strained and fall conspicuously flat. On trying to gain access to the second victim’s house Jack runs through a series of barefaced lies. The sequence amounts to five minutes of agonising and wasted screen time before Von Trier gets to make things nasty and rub our noses in it with a protracted strangulation scene. The intention appears to be the cringe comedy of Curb Your Enthusiasm ran through a jet black wood chipper. The failure is total. Another joke appears to be that Jack is a serial killer with OCD(!) Hilarious. The best the film manages is a wicked repurposing of the red baseball cap, taking it back from Trump… or patting him on the back.
Throughout Von Trier’s attempts to rile the audience feel exposed, be it the callous manner in which Jack drags a body behind his truck while fleeing a scene, the entire treatment of Riley Keough’s ‘character’, or a flashback to his childhood in which his younger self snips off a duckling’s leg and then stares rigidly into the camera. It is as though Von Trier himself is looking at us, asking us to be offended, to be appalled. Hasn’t he been clever, riling us so? It doesn’t come across as transgressive, though. Merely desperate.
But you can have great performances in bad movies, and that’s where Matt Dillon deserves his recognition. His Jack has some of the caricature Christian Bale brought to Jason Bateman, and Dillon is clearly having a ball playing this part. His work here carries an all-or-nothing energy. Dillon is a good actor who has seemingly fallen by the wayside of the Hollywood mainstream. This won’t be a last hurrah, but it has the feel of one; Dillon putting his all in just in case.
Von Trier is very playful, and The House That Jack Built feels akin to the playfulness witnessed in the first volume of Nymphomaniac particularly. He makes tools of animation, stock footage, onscreen text. But these are accomplishments already achieved. He’s been there, done that. Jack is a comfortable victory lap, but one performed, it feels, purely for its creator’s benefit. For all of the film’s verbosity, there’s precious little that’s new here, for the director or for us. Even use of plastic soul-era Bowie harks back to Dogville. The film’s epilogue is, admittedly, fantastic and ridiculous in scope and presentation. But is it quite worth all the rest?
“Your narcissism knows no bounds,” Verge tells Jack wearily at one point, judging him as he does throughout all of The House That Jack Built. The same could be said of Von Trier, and he knows it.