Although this will come as no surprise, Lars von Trier’s latest film has been the most controversial and debated film of 2018. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year and many sickened viewers fled the theatre. Despite this, the film also received a standing ovation. It’s clear to say that it has been received with both excitement and hostility; however, critically it has done worse than audiences could have anticipated. It’s understandable that some will find it strenuous, but it is not without merit.
The director’s previous works such as Antichrist and Nymphomaniac offer a fitting rule of thumb for latest film The House That Jack Built. If the content of these left you unimpressed, then this film likely isn’t for you. The narrative centralises on the activities of a serial killer played by Matt Dillon, who recounts five separate incidents selected at random over a twelve-year period. It is without a doubt one of the most fascinating on-screen accounts of a serial killer in modern cinema. The film almost feels like a collaborative production, arranged by von Trier and his own fictional creation. In an opening voice-over, the voice of mysterious stranger Verge (Bruno Ganz) asserts: “Just don’t believe you’re going to tell me something I haven’t heard before.” This could also be understood as the voice of his audience, who in an acknowledgement of von Trier’s provocateur status, now feel apathetic to his boundary bulldozing.
Yet, the filmmaker does show us something we haven’t seen before. The first incident of the film is quite interesting, which shows us Jack’s encounter with a female victim (played by Uma Thurman), who pesters him with serial killer semantics. It offers a strange comment on the way that absurdly comic accusations towards von Trier as some sort of maniac have become all-too casual. Throughout the film the narrative bleeds into our own world, or rather, von Trier’s singular skewering of it. Moments that Jack evades capture from the law seem to communicate a world in chaos, and a bleak opinion that it’s sometimes easier to hide in plain sight, for the reason that – as Jack screams from one of his victim’s windows – “nobody wants to help!”.
The communication of von Trier’s bleak worldview is stimulating and unconventional. A significant portion of the film consists of stills, stock footage and voice-over between Jack and Verge, who go into polarising and deep discussion of metaphor, art, poetry, religion, life and history. The conversations they share are always interesting and often disturbing, but they tell us a lot about Jack, and even von Trier in the process. As an extensive character study, the film is without a doubt the director’s most accomplished work. Dillon’s performance is remarkable, and brings a presence to the screen you won’t be able to take your eyes off. He can be paranoid, comedic, enraged, despicable, terrifying and pathetic – shifting seamlessly between a palette of gradual extremes with every incident. With eyes black as tar, he practises human emotion and interaction in the mirror, working on masking the manipulative, cunning, self-absorbed monster battling its way towards the surface.
The House That Jack Built is consistently entertaining, but admittedly, there is content here that will sicken you to your core. It’s not that the content is unnecessary, as it works to further distance yourself from a character that you should analyse without any empathy. It will no doubt turn viewers away, which is a shame because it serves a purpose amongst the rest of the entertaining scenes, new-wave influenced experimentation and a mind-blowing last act. The film’s wildly imaginative conclusion helps to exemplify the recurring metaphor which Jack refers to throughout the narrative, and does so in a manner which provides the auteur with his most ambitious sequence to date. In the end, obsession with the creation of art results in the man himself becoming art – as Jack believes – and the film’s final statement on this is unforgettable. This is thrilling cinema.