There’s a conversation at the center of The House That Jack Built that keeps you invested in Lars von Trier’s nihilistic tale of a sadistic serial killer. Jack (Matt Dillon) acts as our unreliable narrator, separating the plot into chapters with reminiscences of five random “incidents” that made him the confident and “sophisticated” killer he is today. His unseen companion “Verge” (Bruno Ganz) acts as the voice of reason, interrupting Jack’s story from time to time to question his motives or offer an opposing point of view. Their conversation unfolds via voiceover during their offscreen journey, while von Trier focuses the camera on the atrocities of Jack’s past infused with allusions to art and politics. The polarizing filmmaker uses Jack as a vessel to deconstruct everything from the nature of Trump’s America to the agony of the creative process, and, ultimately, the reputation and perceptions of his own work.
Most people reading this have likely already formed an opinion about von Trier that will undoubtedly influence whether or not they see this film. Amidst the controversy surrounding The House That Jack Built, I can only add that everything you’ve heard, while exaggerated, is not entirely unwarranted. That said, what you may not have heard is how introspective, fascinating, and, yes, funny his latest venture is. Sure, it may be the blackest pitch of pitch-black comedies, but to take it too seriously would be an oversight.
Indeed, there are moments in the director’s cut where you want to look away from Jack’s unspeakable acts of depravity, except you can’t. Matt Dillon owns your attention. You laugh at him, you detest him, you will never understand him, but he is utterly enthralling inside the skin of this detached monster. Practicing emotions in the mirror to blend in and launching into monotone monologues that rival Patrick Bateman’s, the self-proclaimed sociopath’s only human attribute seems to be his struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Illustrated during his morbidly hilarious account of the second incident, we watch as he returns over and over again to obsessively clean every surface of the house where he’s just murdered a woman (Siobhan Fallon Hogan), because his mind keeps insisting he’s left some trace of evidence behind. Unfortunately, the OCD plot is quickly abandoned as Jack begins taking more risks once he realizes that no one is paying attention – or more to the point of von Trier’s cynical worldview: that nobody wants to help those in need.
Enhancing the humor and horror are a series of homages to artists, like David Bowie whose song “Fame” serves as the sole soundtrack to Jack’s getaways and provocations. A failed architect, he considers his victims works of art, often posing them for photographs or contorting their bodies into grotesque statues on display in the walk-in freezer where he stores them. Another obvious reference hails from Bob Dylan’s video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues” with Jack imitating the famous visual of Dylan dropping cue cards whenever Verge argues varying points about love or missed opportunities. And speaking of Verge, Dante Alighieri's epic poem “Divine Comedy” reveals itself to be the most prominent reference once the duo’s destination is declared. Throw in clips of Glenn Gould performing Bach, Adolf Hitler, and von Trier’s own films and you’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of the endless metaphors about the tortured artist.
People have strong opinions when it comes to Lars von Trier, but it can’t be denied that his films spark absorbing conversations. The House That Jack Built is the director’s response to personal perceptions of him that have been gleaned from his work. There’s no subtlety in Jack’s misogyny, but the challenge lies in separating the character from his creator. Does writing a man like Jack mean von Trier condones everything his character says and does? And if the answer is no, what is the value of unleashing such a monster into the world? In one of Jack’s monologues, von Trier bluntly states that artists expel their demons through their work. In the end, the viewer gets to decide what they think the artist was trying to say. Von Trier has a lot to say in this film, and it’s a conversation worth joining in.