It starts with a woman being bashed in the face with a tire-jack (get it?!) and ends, literally, in hell. In between those two particular poles of depravity, Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built “treats” viewers to a litany of violent images: stranglings, shootings, stabbings, beatings, bludgeonings, post-mortem taxidermy, amputated human appendages repurposed as wallets. (Please don’t ask, “Which appendage?” You do not want to know.) The fact that the version hitting theaters now has been toned down — we’re deploying this phrase as loosely as the Danish director’s attitudes regarding narrative momentum, or emotional engagement, or affection for his fellow carbon-based life forms — from the unrated cut that caused such Cannes-troversy this past spring is a blessing of sorts.
But as you follow a serial killer named Jack (Matt Dillon, extraordinarily committed to being a creep) throughout his homicidal endeavors, a viewer might wonder if merely trimming five minutes of graphic material was enough. Perhaps they could have removed another banality-of-evil hour or so from this two-and-a-half-hour slog. Or simply cut to the chase and run the Bosch-lite coda right after the opening credits. You wouldn’t be missing much. Just the cinematic equivalent of a long, endless smirk.
Framed as a series of “incidents” that are buffered by voiceover conversations between Jack and Verge (Bruno Ganz), a.k.a. Virgil the tour guide of The Divine Comedy, von Trier’s mash-up of cerebral exchanges and American carnage shares a lot with its protagonist. It’s highly intelligent, more than a touch sociopathic and narcissistic to a fault. It’s prone to long-winded rants and fits of rage, when it can be bothered to feel anything at all. It’s handsome when seen from certain angles, a fact that it uses to draw unsuspecting folks into its toxic orbit until, boom, sorry, too late for you. It’s sloppy at times, purposefully so, as if it’s trying to be caught. And it has a tendency to compare — some might also favor the word “mistake” — murder for art, or maybe art for murder.
That last bit is what truly gets von Trier going: a portrait of an artist as a psychopath. Or rather, a self-portrait, since Jack is in many ways a stand-in for the man clacking the laptop keyboard and standing behind the camera. This killer has a tendency to compose his corpses, some fresh and others frozen, for pictures that he can pore over later; occasionally, he has to do reshoots. He’ll issue directions to his “players,” ranging from “sit over here” to “feed this dead boy some pie.” At one point, he ties numerous abductees up in a very specific manner so he can shoot them (like, actually shoot them, but still) and has to keep moving his rifle further back to get the frame in focus. (Gosh, don’t his crosshairs look just like a camera viewfinder!) Should we not get the gist, the filmmaker has Dillon’s character rhapsodizing about the agonies and ecstasies of killing over a montage of von Trier’s own work. There are two sadists here. One of them happens to be onscreen.
But somewhere between watching Uma Thurman get battered by an obsessive-compulsive, beta-version of Jack and suffering through an alpha version of him mouth M.R.A. platitudes to Riley Keough — to be fair, the film’s misogyny is simply the string section in an orchestra of misanthropy — you begin to wonder what von Trier is up to, exactly. Is he trying to point his finger at a complicit audience, a la Michael Haneke’s Funny Games? Is he using the horrific extremes of human behavior to point out the dehumanizing structures of society, in the key of Salò? Is he taking the piss out of our love of thrill-kill cult movies and pop entertainment, i.e. The Silence of the Lambs or TV’s Hannibal? (The latter’s baroque death art initially seems a like a target when the director gives us a God’s-eye shot featuring lines of dead crows … then he virtually lifts a scene from the TV show for the third act.)
The answer, so far as we can tell, is “Maybe all of them or none of them,” or possibly “Well, [shrugs] if you say so,” or probably “Go fuck yourself, audience, tee hee.” Von Trier has given us a banquet of food for thought here, but in his eyes, it’s simply all the better for us to gag on. There is no such thing as good or bad art. (Bad taste, sure, but that’s something else.) There is definitely ugly art, however, and in the right hands, there can be so much insight to be mined by rubbing one’s face in the worst of it. That’s assuredly not the case here. Unlike von Trier’s best works — Breaking the Waves, Dogville, Melancholia, all works we’d take a full-metal-jacket bullet from Jack for — anything being said here is being drowned out by the actors’ screams and the creator’s sniggering. Those films prove he’s a great artist. Jack proves he’s also capable of making a failed act of provocation. The fact that he ends the movie in hell seems superfluous. We’ve already been there for two and a half hours.