Denmark/France/Germany/Sweden/Belgium | 2018 | Directed by Lars Von Trier
Logline: Traces the select murders of a serial killer over twelve years as he justifies his psychopathic behaviour.
The Enfant Terrible of arthouse cinema returns with his twisted “celebration” that life is evil and soulless. It’s another dark “epic”, clocking in at two-and-a-half-hours long, and features Matt Dillon as Jack, an engineer, longing to be an architect, yet distracted by his duplicity as a serial killer. It’s a protracted journey into darkness, punctuated by a coal black sense of humour, and stitched together by Jack’s ongoing conversations with Verge (Bruno Ganz) about art and philosophy.
Jack relates five incidents that occur over a twelve year period, beginning somewhere in the late 60s/early 70s. Each one focusing on the murder of either a stranger, or a relationship partner. Jack is a smart fellow, but he is afflicted with OCD, particularly cleanliness. He muses over the links between his own childhood, the history and depiction of art, and his increasingly careless desire to brutally kill. It is his own version of The Tiger and the Lamb, and yet his killing in the contemporary world feels like an anachronism.
Von Trier has fashioned a difficult, confronting, but strangely compelling fusion of several of his earlier films, whilst also bringing to mind several cult movies dealing with serial and spree killers; Funny Games, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and Man Bites Dog. Jack explains to Verge how his compulsion to murder is like the hungry shadow that waxes and wanes as a man walks from one street lamp to another, the umbra stretching forward then fading, as a new one extends out behind him, shrinking until it is directly under him, dark and intense, and the hunger is at its most ferocious.
David Bowie’s “Fame” is used on several occasions, to mark Jack’s itch for recognition in suitably ironic fashion. He photographs a double killing as a macabre still life, sends a picture into the local newspaper, signed as Mr. Sophistication, and smiles in satisfaction when the photo is published. Later, Jack elaborates to Verge about how the putrefaction of the human body in death is similar to the cultivation of dessert one, in particular, freezing the grapes, dehydration, and, his favourite, the noble rot. Verge finds Jack’s analogies crass.
“Shall I show you the way to the next whisky bar?,” offers Verge, leading Jack down through the circles of Hell. Jack has finally constructed his house, albeit of unusual materials. The law is at arm’s reach, it’s time to surrender to one’s infernal destiny.
Lars Von Trier hasn’t come close to the masterful emotional journey of Breaking The Waves, nor the succinct experimental brilliance of The Five Obstructions, or the apocalyptic musing and beauty of Melancholia. His latest existential meander is overlong (could easily have been 45 minutes shorter) and suffers, once again, from self-indulgence. But there is dark gold in the corners of Jack’s nightmare abode, some terrific performances, notably Dillon, also Uma Thurman, Riley Keough, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, and Sofie Gråbøl. Aided by Manuel Alberto Claro’s cinematography - part cinema verité, part lush tableaux, Von Trier constructs some stunning, painterly images.
The House That Jack Built is demanding and not for the faint-hearted; in particular, two scenes of mutilation (duck lovers beware!) will make the most hardened horrorphile wince. But for those willing to go the distance, Lars Von Trier’s searing study of serial killer tick-tockings will reward. When one stares into the abyss, sometimes it stares back and winks.