I thought I had gotten confident enough in my distaste for Lars Von Trier’s audience & critics trolling that I no longer considered keeping up with his provocations du jour an obligatory exercise. During the entire hype & backlash cycle for Nymphomaniac, I largely abstained from engaging – neither reading reviews nor thinking about what he was trying to say with the film, much less actually watching all 325 (uncut) minutes of it. Honestly, it was freeing. However, von Trier’s follow-up to that massive, prurient temple of self-indulgence, The House that Jack Built, somehow lured me back into his orbit, like Wile E Coyote unable to walk away from the Road Runner even if it means repeatedly falling off the same cliff. There was a carnival sideshow aspect to The House that Jack Built that I was too weak to resist. Its initial reaction out of Cannes was polarized between mass, disgusted walkouts & glowing 5-star reviews. It was touted as both an inflammatory gore fest and the height of art film pretension – two modes of cinema I can’t help but love seeing smashed against each other. Even more enticingly, the film was being shown in select theaters in its “unrated” festival cut for one night only before making the theatrical rounds in a toned-down R-Rated edit (a move that really twisted the tighty-whities of the nerds at the MPAA), which only helped boost the attraction of its promised grindhouse sleaze. Perhaps the biggest disappointment of The House that Jack Built is that I didn’t have an especially strong reaction to its faults or merits, that I was neither especially tickled nor offended through most of its lengthy runtime. I had allowed the carnival barker promises of a highly divisive, hyperviolent art piece to lure me back into engaging with Von Trier’s edge-lord pranksterism, only to experience the one thing you never want to encounter at the movies: boredom.
I will credit The House That Jack Built for this: it does break the pattern that’s become so stubbornly, cruelly repetitious in the stories von Trier chooses to tell. The typical Lars von Trier film introduces the audience to a complex, lovable woman and then proceeds to torture her as harshly and unforgivingly as possible for the entire length of a feature. It was a tactic that worked on me in early-career titles like Breaking the Waves & Dancer in the Dark, but it has only become increasingly pointless as it’s repeated verbatim in each subsequent, cruelly grim work. The House that Jack Built disrupts this career-long pattern, but perhaps in the most boring way possible. It maintains the violent-destruction-of-women themes that are constant to his previous pictures, but this time switches the central POV to the man who’s destroying them, a serial killer played by Matt Dillon. Von Trier also deliberately strips his female characters of their depth & nuance, turning them into pathetic, braying dolts who practically beg to be murdered to save the world the trouble of their existence. Broken into five “incidents,” The House That Jack Built is practically an anthology horror; each victim is played broadly & without empathy so that there’s time to move onto the next. Matt Dillon punctuates each chapter with visual-collage art history lectures and psychiatric conversations with the poet Virgil (Bruno Ganz), contrasting the film’s dirt-cheap mid-2000s torture porn aesthetic with the literary grandeur of Dante’s Inferno. The kills themselves are gruesome, featuring unflinching depictions of mutilated women & children Dillon has claimed as trophies, but they’re also no more shocking than anything you’d see in an Eli Roth movie or a Saw sequel—flatly shot acts of pointless cruelty that are as boring now as they were when they were the Mainstream Horror standard a decade ago. Von Trier has devolved his torture of female characters to the most pedestrian, artless level of cinematic masturbation available. The annoying part is that he knows exactly what he’s doing; it’s all for a cheap joke.
Not only does von Trier change up his usual schtick by switching POVs to the man responsible for the women’s pain, he also chooses the most eyeroll-worthy subject possible for that new perspective: himself. In its best moments, The House That Jack Built functions like a buffoonish self-parody exaggerating how the director’s harshest critics see his work. The oversimplification & increased cruelty of his typical tones & methods are entirely the point – as he parodies media perception of his life’s work through the avatar of a serial killer who makes mediocre art out of violence. In a way, the mildly dopey Matt Dillon is perfectly cast in the role, recalling the empty-headed brutes of American Psycho & Killer Joe who think themselves superior to the mouth-breathers around them, but doesn’t actually have anything insightful, useful, or clever to say themselves. Dillon’s titular misogynist fancies himself to be the kind of hyper-intelligent serial killer sophisticate who turns mutilation & dismemberment into a fine art, like a 21st Century Hannibal Lector. He even autographs his evidence with the nom de plume “Mr. Sophistication” to taunt the police on his tail and compares the corpses he leaves behind to classic examples of paintings, piano compositions, and cathedral designs. He imagines himself to be a meticulous perfectionist in his violence/art, but is in fact a sloppy buffoon – more Paul Blart than Dexter. It’s initially a hilarious self-own, with von Trier expressing amazement that he keeps getting away with his woman-tormenting provocations despite the glowing flaws repeated throughout his work. The way Dillon’s ineptitude clashes with his illusions of grandeur and how he exploits MRA-type hurt-puppy tactics to weasel out of getting stopped from committing another crime (i.e. many making another movie) suggests a focused self-awareness of exactly how on Trier’s art is perceived by his harshest detractors. It’s a deliberate attack on his audience, then, when the cartoonish self-parody of the film’s earliest kills dissipates, and he begins to play the cruelty of the violence straight. After being shown how pointlessly cruel these empty provocations can be, it’s a lot to ask from the audience to sit through them again without the jokey remove. It’s also unforgivably boring in that straight-faced repetition, especially considering the extremity of the material.
There are some undeniably striking images & themes scattered throughout The House That Jack Built, but they’re overwhelmed by so much deliberately pedestrian genre filmmaking & self-trolling inside humor that it’s like searching for diamonds in dogshit. The way I can tell that the film doesn’t work as a whole in its own right is that it wouldn’t mean anything to someone who wasn’t already aware of Lars von Trier’s filmography & past PR debacles. Its horror genre payoffs are not extreme enough to justify the visceral reactions they elicited at Cannes or their banned by-by-the-MPAA outlaw status; anyone who survived the Hostel era of grimy torture porn grotesqueries has seen it all before, if not worse. The one time I was personally shocked & offended by this highfalutin troll job was in a Faces of Death-style sequence of real-life footage of dead bodies resulting from Nazi war atrocities. It’s not that I believe that thematic territory to be wholly off-limits (a very similar tactic worked for me with great impact in BlacKkKlansman earlier this year, for instance); it’s that it was evoked merely to poke fun at the blowback von Trier received for favorably comparing his artistry to Hitler’s at a press conference. It’s just so frustrating to sit through so much pitch-black misery for the sake of someone else’s self-amusement, especially when they demonstrate upfront that they know better. In The House that Jack Built’s earliest stretches, it feels as if von Tier is truly coming to terms with the follies of his own cruelty & pretensions; he appears willing to make a joke at his own expense, satirizing his worst impulses for cartoonishly broad humor. By the end of the film, however, he doubles down on being his own biggest fan, lashing out at his heretics with exaggerated, weaponized versions of his cruelest, most unlovable tactics. The House That Jack Built is only a self-critique for so long before it becomes a temple for von Trier’s own cinematic legacy; it’s a black hole of creative & receptive energy that only drags all of us further into the discussion of his art & his persona – whether or not we find him interesting to begin with. I’m embarrassed that I afforded him my attention here. I have spent too much of my life online to have been tricked into feeding this particular troll again. I should have known better.