Cannes Palme d’Or winner Lars von Trier’s psychological horror The House That Jack Built follows the development of a highly intelligent serial killer (Matt Dillon) over the course of 12 years.
But don’t mistake this for a “serial killer movie”, says Aaron Yap, noting the film is perversely funny, and offers a warped lens of how von Trier sees himself—sadistic twaddle and all.
Haters gonna hate, and von Trier gonna von Trier as hard as he can. That should give you some gauge as to whether you should bail from The House That Jack Built right now. For this smugly self-aware, nonetheless arrestingly idiosyncratic, magnum-opus-wannabe finds the controversy-baiting poster boy of auteurist arthouse navel-gazing venturing further down the path of no return as his widening circle of detractors cry, not without good reason, “Don’t feed the troll!”.
Despite its numerous unpleasantries, occasionally conjuring echoes of Hannibal’s ornate grisliness, The House That Jack Built is not to be mistaken for a “serial killer movie”. I’ll be the first to admit that Matt Dillon is remarkably effective as a Dahmer/Bundy-type lunatic dubbed “Mr. Sophistication”. And for those who can adjust their taste bearings to accommodate, this is definitely von Trier’s most perversely funny movie in a long while. But it’s impossible to watch all of this detached from the warped lens of how von Trier sees himself, and how he thinks the world sees him.
Sign up for Flicks updates
Part maddening apologia, part droning art/history lecture, the film is prone to philosophical longueurs, often guided by Dillion’s off-screen dialogue with an unseen man named Verge (Bruno Ganz). In between indefensible bouts of cruelty, there’s much waffling on about the freedoms of artistic creation, the value of icons, the differences between an engineer and an architect and so forth.
In other words, the same sadistic twaddle we’ve come to love and hate from the man? Perhaps so. But it’s also the most purposefully diabolical act of self-reckoning von Trier’s ever committed to. The House That Jack Built is like Buffalo Bill wearing the transcendental skin of Tarkovsky, staring into an infernal chasm of his own making.