Lars Von Trier has coasted along as the enfant terrible of cinema for so long that now, finally, his use of shock tactics have lost their bite.
In The House That Jack Built, Matt Dillon’s Jack, seemingly in conversation throughout with an omnipresent male being, Verge, (Bruno Ganz playing either God or the Devil) reads like a straight, white man’s solipsistic manifesto on toxic masculinity as art in the age of #MeToo, but it’s also brimming with a playfulness that enlightens what is otherwise too long, too repetitive, too in love with its own ideas.
Jack represents the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Psychopath; with the murderer and violence standing in for Von Trier, the artist, his art, and the suffering along the way (mainly of women, because their suffering is ‘more interesting’), the inevitable sacrifices needed to create his final masterpieces.
Jack is a character that is detached to the point of being a tragic fool, almost playing the victim. He is Ted Bundy, luring women into a false sense of vulnerability, only for obstacles to constantly belittle him: his OCD when cleaning up a blood stained carpet, the familiar obsessiveness of the sufferer coming alive, akin to remembering that the back door hasn’t been locked when you’re already halfway down the motorway; the mockery of a family he creates just to use them for a sadistic picnic. It’s a Norman Rockwell picture of familial togetherness turned into a grim spectacle.
Insights into the psychopath can be interesting without needing to be moralistic; films such as Henry, the Portrait of a Serial Killer, and I Am Not a Serial Killer offer an interesting empathy and understanding to the most maligned of minds. Dillon is the film’s saving grace, playing Jack with a knowing wink, never taking its subject too seriously.
Von Trier utilises his usual format of chapters, and here they are used in a predictable manner, intercepted with the use of Bowie’s Fame, and Jack, holding up signs that allude to his ‘works of art’, each chapter standing in as an account of one grisly act of murder, each one as absurd as the last.
The most interesting pieces are farcical elements that, surprisingly, play like black comedy: Jack and his OCD subsequent to strangling and then stabbing an old innocent lady to death, or rearranging a dead child’s body into a grimacing feat of taxidermy. Jack’s monologue on women and their stupidity reaches levels of self-parody and Riley Keogh (nicknamed ‘simple’) and Uma Thurman are almost exaggerated stereotypes of women fantasised by a misogynist. It is difficult to feel offended when their own characterisations cannot be taken as anything but sensationalist shock tactics.
If the expected joke is, indeed, on us, a two-and-a-half-hour practical prank on the liberal, PC-viewing audience, then sadly, the film still doesn’t defeat its own boringness, with nothing original or even insightful to say about the artist’s experience, or even the male one. It’s easier to opt to hate it, than try and articulate how it may stand out as memorable or well-acted, both ways in which it actually succeeds.
THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT / CERT: 18 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: LARS VON TRIER / STARRING: MATT DILLON, BRUNO GANZ, UMA THURMAN, JEREMY DAVIES / RELEASE DATE: DECEMBER 14TH
Expected Rating: 4 out of 10