On paper, it sounds like the stuff of nightmares: Lars von Trier, the Danish maestro of suffering who made Breaking The Waves, Dancer In The Dark, and Antichrist, takes on the most grimly fascinating of real-life bogeymen, the serial killer. But The House That Jack Built, for all its graphic and disturbing violence, isn’t a horror movie, exactly. Equating murder with artistic creation (a very old parallel), it finds the writer-director in an especially self-reflective mood, using the crimes of a homicidal proxy to examine his own work, as well as the criticisms often lobbed at it, including the persistent charges of misogyny. Of course, we’re still talking about von Trier, an incorrigible provocateur so hooked on his own bad-boy reputation that he’ll create a controversy when his films don’t. His House lands somewhere between apology and apologia, self-flagellation and trolling: However hard the filmmaker is on himself, he’s not above rationalizations, and he spares plenty of punishment for us, too.
Matt Dillon, skin-crawlingly effective in the Bundy profile (plus a little Dahmer misfit energy), plays the title character, an architect who moonlights as a vicious killer, stuffing the bodies of his victims in a red van and storing them in an abandoned meat locker. Over the course of the movie, he’ll recount five “incidents” from his storied career in “murders and executions,” to quote another American psycho, Patrick Bateman. The first of these is Jack’s inaugural slaying, committed on a geographically dubious backroad of the Pacific Northwest. (Like many of von Trier’s movies, this one is set, but definitely not shot, in the States.) Here, a stranger (Uma Thurman) having car troubles badgers him into giving her a ride to the mechanic’s, then all but talks him into becoming a serial killer. He bashes her face in with a car jack—a sloppy, inauspicious debut.
Jack gets better with practice, of course. Dubbing himself Mr. Sophistication, he begins to master the science of luring victims to their doom and inconspicuously transporting their bodies. With time, he gets creative with the aftermath, arranging the corpses into elaborate, baroque tableau, à la many of the macabre maniacs-of-the-week encountered on the sadly short-lived Hannibal. All of this is plainly a treatise on von Trier’s filmmaking career. That’s not even subtext, really—the director makes the connection explicit with a late montage of imagery from his own filmography, lest anyone fail to grasp that Jack = Lars. He also breaks up and introduces the grisly anecdotes through Jack’s ongoing conversation with an unseen confidante played by Bruno Ganz, whose presence relevantly evokes both divinity and human evil. It’s a device nearly identical to the one von Trier adopted in his last movie, Nymphomaniac, and if that four- to five-hour opus played like an imaginary dialogue between the director and his critics, The House That Jack Built is closer to von Trier arguing with himself, locking us into a debate between his ego and his self-loathing, his confidence and his self-doubt.
However metaphoric the bloodshed may be, it’s not always easy to stomach. There were walkouts at the film’s Cannes premiere, as scenes of Jack mutilating women, children, and animals sent many sprinting for the exits. Following a one-night-only, MPAA-irking release of that same version, The House That Jack Built arrives now in theaters and on VOD in a slightly toned-down R-rated cut, missing a reported few minutes of gruesomeness. Whatever got excised, the film’s madness and sadism almost certainly remain: If the carnage is blatantly a stand-in for something else, the characters don’t know that, and von Trier refuses to abstract their terror and despair, any more than he did Nicole Kidman’s trauma in his masterpiece, Dogville, which kept her emotions very real against the Brechtian fakeness of the soundstage setting.
Some of this does work as the darkest of dark comedy. Early on, the character’s delusions of grandeur, his pretentious references to great works of art and architecture (little essayistic digressions tucked into the film’s crevices), bump up amusingly against the bumbling incompetence of his killing spree. One hilarious scene finds Jack, who has obsessive-compulsive disorder, returning again and again to the living room of a stranger he’s strangled to death, delaying his clean getaway in order to compulsively scan the scene of the crime, checking and double-checking for blood stains. (His brazen insistence that the police officer who eventually shows up thoroughly examine the room plays like a parody of that cliché of serial killers begging to be caught.) At the same time, The House That Jack Built is dead serious about the inner turmoil that drives Jack to kill, because it’s really a distorted phantom of von Trier’s own tortured creative process, driven by a depression he’s funneled, by his own admission, into films like Melancholia and Antichrist.
Von Trier has always insisted that he empathizes with women, and that the gauntlet of suffering his films often put them through is an expression of his own private torment. But in The House That Jack Built, he confronts that controversial aspect of his work by cranking it to 11. When Ganz’s foil character, Verge, points out that Jack seems only to kill women, the latter is quick to insist he kills men, too—he’s equal-opportunity in his cruelty, so the argument goes. But what is one to make of the choice to portray all the female victims as dolts whose stupidity gets them killed? When, in the film’s most repulsive scene, Jack parrots the aggrieved talking points of men’s-rights types before committing a grisly atrocity, are we to take that as a self-critique, a cultural one, or both? The fact that the film’s fictional world is often indifferent to the violence, even ignoring bloodcurdling screams for help, lands like a deflection: “Sure, my films can be tough on women, but that’s to make the point that no one cares about violence against women in real life!” It’s evasive and unconvincing.
In truth, the misogynistic elements may be performative—an expression of von Trier’s pathological need to shock, the antagonism that’s become wrapped up in his whole cult of personality. At its most compelling, The House That Jack Built interrogates that impulse, asking whether it’s possible to create great art without love, or maybe if creating art actually demands stepping around moral constructs. Certainly, the latter is a question relevant to the career of this sometimes-brilliant artist, given what he’s put his actors through—a history of demanding and even tyrannical on-set behavior (not to be confused with, though possibly overlapping, the allegations of harassment that have been made against him). Von Trier’s great movies, and even some of his bad ones, wrap you up in their diabolical design, a reflection of the darkness within him. But with The House That Jack Built, he’s finally dragged us, kicking and screaming, into the echo chamber of his own mind, and being there isn’t so edifying. One is left to wonder if the movie’s endless, agonized navel-gazing justifies the often tediously unpleasant experience of watching it.
Note: This is an expanded version of the review The A.V. Club ran from the Cannes Film Festival. The R-rated cut is a few minutes shorter.