Another year and another controversial film from Lars von Trier, a director so synonymous with provocation there’s a good chance he could do it whilst he slept. From The Idiots through to Nymphomaniac, von Trier appears to the outsider, and likely to his fans, hellbent on making his audience as uncomfortable as possible. The House That Jack Built, a two-and-a-half-hour rumination of art, murder and misogyny is unlikely to be persuading people to think otherwise.
A deliberately episodic affair, the film sees Matt Dillon as Jack, a serial killer who considers his work to be talked about with the same awe as one would the Sistine chapel. Rather than simply narrating his life to the audience, Jack is scrutinised by a largely unseen man by the name of Verge (the late Bruno Ganz). Speaking off camera, the two men are on a journey and Jack relishes the opportunity to talk about five incidents that have shaped his blood lust over the last 12 years.
If someone were to be foolhardy enough to put together a supercut of all of Jack’s misdeeds in the film, you would be forgiven for thinking that The House That Jack Built was nothing more than a bloody stew of violence. Children are hunted, animals are tortured, women are beaten, and appendages, when they’re not being fashioned into wallets, are stuck to police car windows. In fairness, you’re likely reading this because the film’s reputation has preceded it; The House That Jack Built is a nasty film.
Well, yes, the film’s moments of violence can be shocking, but only because they puncture the monotony of Jack’s storytelling. Jack is a tiresome bore who, in the pursuit of making people understand his genius, will argue the toss of a coin if it will get a reaction. Initially interested in what he has to say, Verge can be heard to slowly lose interest in what the murderer has to say for himself, resigning himself to a fate of having his ear talked off.
Von Trier appears to be anticipating his audience with Verge’s reactions, calling out Jack for being an unreliable narrator who paints all policemen as idiots and all women as asking for it. In fact, if one were so inclined, you could look at The House That Jack Built as an allegory about the political landscape the world has found itself in. In one scene Jack wears a bright red hat whilst committing atrocities, and in another scene, he openly laments to one of his victims how men are the real victims because society always takes the woman’s side in accusations. When Verge calls him out on his misogyny, Jack bemoans that he kills men too, don’t ya know. Heck, he evens dubs himself Mr Sophistication. I’m not saying Jack is an incel, but if the shoe fits…
Stepping away from the likes of Luther and Hannibal to show that serial killers are normal, dull men who commit horrendous acts is another of the film’s strengths, alongside Dillon’s performance. However, like Jack himself, The House that Jack Built goes on for longer than it needs to. By the time von Trier starts up another monologue about art, this time set to a montage of the director’s own work, the film almost gives up the pretence of not being self-indulgent. It’s a feeling that doesn’t fade despite, or perhaps because of, the visually sumptuous finale that plays like a Hieronymus Bosch nightmare.
Simply put, The House That Jack Built is not going to be the film people think it is. It manages to be mundane in its provocation and shocking in its normality. It works because it sets itself up to be dissected and scrutinised by the audience long after they’ve left the cinema. It’s everything Jack would want.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★☆☆
‘The House That Jack Built’ hits select Australian cinemas on March 7. Full list of cinemas HERE.