Lars Von Trier is a Very Serious Man who makes Very Serious Movies. With that in mind, it’s surprising that his ventures into genre cinema have been so few and far between. Following his excruciatingly horrible yet thoroughly excellent Antichrist (a cabin in the woods film, Von Trier style), it’s taken almost ten years for the director to put out something on the same level of nastiness – this, his serial killer movie, The House that Jack Built.
Unexpectedly, it is also perhaps his most conventional movie to date. Matt Dillon plays serial killer Jack, describing a handful of his most memorable murders to an unseen figure. Because this is a Lars Von Trier movie, the story is divided into chapters, each one detailing a specific atrocity. Kicking off with Jack bludgeoning Uma Thurman to death with a car jack (geddit), the narrative neither builds nor gathers momentum, but simply trundles on from one horrendous murder to the next. The lack of momentum holds true to the murders too; the film is content to start off nasty and remain that way throughout, and none of Jack’s crimes are any milder or more horrible than the others (depending on one’s particular triggers as an audience member).
Again, this is a Lars Von Trier movie though, and so the film is chock full of the director’s kinks and peculiarities. Inappropriate use of classical music? Check. Gratuitous child murder? Check. Violent misogyny thinly disguised as artistic statement? Big old check. Even more so than Mother!, The House that Jack Built reads as a confession by the author on (or justification of) his own treatment of women, painting himself (Jack) as the artist, and the man’s victims (mostly women) as the canvas. There’s even a moment when Jack shrugs off an accusation of misogyny, claiming that women are simply 'easier to work with’ than men. In Lars's defence, the film doesn't believe Jack when he says that either.
This is all very intellectual, but no great revelation, and what many won’t have expected – especially following the stories of booing and walk-outs on the festival circuit – is how boring Lars Von Trier’s serial killer movie is. Lars and Jack ramble on and on, and once you’ve seen one or two of Jack’s murders, you’ve essentially seen them all. Jack yammers on incoherently and esoterically, to the point where his non-sequiturs make him sound like something out of a YouTube Bad Lip Reading video.
But again, this is a Lars Von Trier movie, and the visuals and performances are both outstanding. Dillon commands the screen as Jack, putting in an incredibly nuanced performance, in spite of Jack’s chilly emotionless demeanor. There’s not much room for anyone else, but his victims are each allotted the time to twang on a heartstring or two, before inevitably meeting their end at Jack’s hands. Even as the story bores on and Jack himself gets on one’s nerves, there’s no denying how magnificent it looks, like an episode of Hannibal writ large. Jack’s actual house, by the way, is so Hannibal, one wonders whether Lars himself might be a bit of a Fannibal.
The House that Jack Built is at once too Lars Von Trier and not Lars Von Trier enough. It’s nasty and nihilistic and pretentious, but in the wrong way, lacking the transgressive feeling of his previous films. It's upsetting but never shocking; inevitable rather than unpredictable. Like Jack, it’s cold, talks too much, and isn’t nearly as clever as it thinks it is. This is undoubtedly a Lars Von Trier movie, but one wishes that it could have been more.