CW: Obscene (and unnecessary) violence.
It is rare that a film is released that is so beyond the pale that it makes you question how it managed to come into existence in the first place. How did they secure producers, where did they find funding, who even agreed to work on set?
Perhaps, to be an auteur of any credibility, you must first be a great salesman. And a great salesman is what Lars Von Trier must be.
This is, of course, largely helped by his extraordinary oeuvre of films, including Melancholia, Antichrist, and Dogville, which sit unrivalled by most other Hollywood directors within the arthouse genre. When it comes to The House that Jack Built, however, the only astonishing thing about it is that it was made in the first place.
The House That Jack Built follows an episodic structure covering five murders and tracing the Dantean descent of Jack (Matt Dillon) as he develops his murdering prowess. The abhorrent depravity of Jack is presented unfalteringly and without redemption. Films and literature that adopt this perpetrator-as-protagonist or anti-hero approach often find the viewer identifying with an abhorrent subject with one or two redemptive qualities one finds relatable, causing them to question their own morality and identity.
When watching The House That Jack Built, it quickly becomes clear that this isn’t what Von Trier has in mind. Instead, all of Jack’s barbarism is put on show, unfalteringly and with a total lack of redeeming qualities. The overarching effect this creates is a mixture of repulsion, alienation, and a strong desire to walk out of the cinema.
Threaded into the episodic structure are fairly esoteric philosophical discussions between Jack and his ethereal mentor, Verge (Bruno Ganz). This interweaves a confusing attempt at intellect into the film, from which we come to understand Jack’s actions as the performance of a satirical, albeit extremist, contemplation of art and the inherent condition of man. Whilst these fairly cryptic musings serve to ground the film in something a little more substantial than mindless brutality, they offer little respite from the main narrative.
Despite this, Matt Dillon makes a welcome return to the realm of larger releases with The House That Jack Built. The slight arrogance that he is renowned for perfectly aligns with that of Jack, and while his character is deplorable, he does an excellent job of playing him.
While Von Trier has, in the past, managed to turn a ludicrous script into something masterful, The House That Jack Built is a testament to the risk involved in attempting to pull something like this off.
Sometimes it works and sometimes it just doesn’t.