Sometimes a film director needs to let go of hangups about pretentiousness and exploitation and just self-indulge. One could argue that Lars von Trier has done exactly this throughout his entire career; controversial at his best and downright offensive at his worst, no von Trier film release is exempt from some sort of headline circus. His latest film, 'The House That Jack Built', is yet another addition to his controversy canon - the film caused more than a hundred people to walk out during its Cannes premiere, and broke overseas classification rules by screening an unapproved uncut version.
Matt Dillon ('There's Something About Mary') tries his best with the D.O.A. material as the titular Jack, a long-term and so far undiscovered serial killer with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It seems that after 12 years of killing, Jack has lost the passion for his "art". His methods are getting sloppier, his lies to attempt entering victim's houses become more transparent, and his confidence and indifference at not being caught extends to confessing his crimes to unbelieving police officers. The film centers on five particular "incidents", as he laments via voiceover to an older man (the late Bruno Ganz, 'Wings of Desire') that the thrill of the kill just doesn't do it for him anymore. His victims are either too weak or too stupid (he even nicknames one "Simple") or too hard to clean up. Unlike other serial killers in pop culture who keep a small part of their kills as souvenirs, Jack keeps his (mostly intact) victims in a massive, definitely smelly freezer room.
Of course, no von Trier film is complete without some artsy thematic parallel to the main plot, and to his credit, it works pretty well in places here. Though nowhere near as effective as the fly-fishing metaphor used through his last project, 'Nymphomaniac' Parts I and II, the decision to go biblical is a smart one; when your main character is a soul this evil, why not just literally send him to hell? This film's two and half hour run time - yes, you read right - is further padded with meditations on art and death as Jack romanticizes his bloodshed as the work of a "tortured artist", dabbling in very twisted forms of taxidermy and architecture.
If you are familiar with von Trier's body of work, then a warning that this film is not for the faint of heart should come as no surprise (you'll also recognise his documentary-like shooting style and fondness for segmenting his films into thematic "chapters", repeated here). For those who have never had the pleasure - or displeasure - of seeing a von Trier film, please take the film's classification seriously. There are a few moments that are played for pitch-black laughs - a repeating spinning shot inside the freezer set to 'Fame' by David Bowie is surely not intended to be as funny as it is - but they do not undermine the horror and intense gore, and they also don't work. There is also an undercurrent of misogyny that Jack tries to rationalise throughout, but it never lands as well as it tries to. Von Trier may be able to laugh at the sight of a young boy's body being fed pie by his grieving mother, but to the average film goer much of this film will feel in awful taste.
There is the sense that von Trier, at 62, is losing his touch, a once great director now just being exploitative for the sake of it.
Despite the confronting and frustrating nature of his films, I do consider myself a Lars von Trier fan. It's disappointing to announce that nothing in 'The House That Jack Built' feels remotely as compelling as his previous work. There is the sense that von Trier, at 62, is losing his touch, a once great director now just being exploitative for the sake of it. There is the argument that the source material calls for such graphic imagery, but there are plenty of serial killer films that are more effective and less graphic. There is even a montage of clips from his previous works, which makes the difference in quality with this new film all the more apparent. It seems that audience fatigue is setting in also; whether it's a refusal to indulge von Trier's hubris or simply indifference to his work, 'The House That Jack Built' has had a less than stellar overseas box office run, not even earning back its budget.
It's an unofficial running joke that each von Trier release is a cry for mental health help, and that he should just get a therapist and move on. If he continues down this path, I think people won't care enough to be listening for much longer.