Lars Von Trier pivots to extreme violence in The House That Jack Built

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      Starring Matt Dillon. Rated 18A

      It was the U.K. film critic Phil Hardy who brought José Mojica Marins (a.k.a. Coffin Joe) to the attention of the English-speaking world, making a convincing argument for the Brazilian horror auteur’s grimy canon as the work of a sadistic psychopath seeking therapy through his art. Oh, how ardently Lars Von Trier must desire an equivalent critical diagnosis!

      After blowing his load (snicker) with the five-plus hours of 2013’s Nymphomaniac, the Danish bad boy surprises no one with this pivot from explicit sex to extreme violence, clumsily dressed up with some lame hooey about the pathological compulsions that drive art and creation. Jack actually borrows its structure from the previous film, with a Pacific Northwest serial killer (Matt Dillon) boasting his crimes to an off-screen companion named Verge (voiced by former angel Bruno Ganz) in a series of five hate-and-gore-drenched vignettes.

      We’re left to wonder who Jack’s trying to impress here. Maybe Verge is the pastor who walks him to the electric chair? In any case, we’re already in unreliable-narrator territory with the film’s opening set piece, in which Uma Thurman goes out of her way to make a super-vulnerable nuisance of herself prior to getting her face destroyed with a tire jack. Victim number two (Siobhan Fallon Hogan, formerly of SNL!) is no less of a dimwit when she welcomes Jack into her home based presumably on a weakness for menacing weirdos pretending to sell insurance.

      Jack is a wannabe architect contemptuous of engineers, and the film certainly isn’t interested in the engineering of drama; just shock and disgust and the projection of Von Trier’s incoherent ideas, most painfully achieved by the killing of two children. The way our hero desecrates one of their corpses is nightmarish and profane in a way that would make the average Blumhouse hack turn to jelly. Arguably just as nauseating is the non elective double mastectomy suffered by Riley Keough, recently seen playing “Capable” in Mad Max: Fury Road. In a typically tin-eared joke, Von Trier calls her “Simple”. (On the other hand: a routine concerning Jack’s OTT battle with OCD is genuinely funny.)

      These sequences are handsomely separated by Verge and Jack’s philosophical debates, illustrated with clips of Glenn Gould (why?), a Cannes-baiting detour into Nazi aesthetics, and even a section compiling clips from Von Trier’s own back catalogue. And it’s here that brief shots from Antichrist and Melancholia foreshadow the outlandish, unforgettable beauty of Jack’s epilogue; a truly extraordinary succession of baroque images in which we find ourselves seduced finally by Dillon’s epic performance, and wherein Von Trier’s own indomitable humanity—he’s no Coffin Joe—makes its last-minute appearance. 

      Indeed, after all that we’ve sat through, Jack’s sendoff turns out to be a moving salute to a damned soul still tragically possessing the spark of innocence. It’s a pattern unique to this filmmaker: in the moment, we’re only roused from our exasperation, revulsion, and occasional bouts of napping to deride Von Trier’s laughable tics and excesses. And then, somehow, we spend the next week craving more and hating ourselves and wondering if his latest is actually a masterpiece.