The Danish provocateur returns with an extremely violent and nihilistic work, one that is nasty yet utterly fascinating at the same time.
Dir. Lars von Trier
2018 | Denmark | Crime/Drama/Horror | 152 mins | 2.39:1 | English
M18 (passed clean) for violence and disturbing scenes
Cast: Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman, Riley Keough, Siobhan Fallon Hogan
Plot: The story follows Jack, a highly intelligent serial killer, over the course of twelve years, and depicts the murders that really develop his inner madman.
Awards: Official Selection (Cannes)
International Sales: TrustNordisk
Singapore Distributor: Anticipate Pictures
Subject Matter: Mature/Controversial
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Niche Arthouse
(Reviewed at Singapore Film Society screening – first published 14 Nov 2018)
How can we ever come to terms with a filmmaker like Lars von Trier? A provocateur amongst provocateurs, the Danish director of such controversial works as Breaking the Waves (1996), The Idiots (1998) and Antichrist (2009) sees him stirring the hornet’s nest again after a five-year absence.
Notoriously causing mass walkouts at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, his latest, The House That Jack Built, is an extremely violent and nihilistic work even by his standards. (I’m quite surprised that the Singapore censors passed it uncut at M18 and not R21).
If you are familiar with the treatment of von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2013), his two-parter audiovisual ‘thesis’ on sex and sexuality, you are already one step ahead of the curve in terms of making sense of this harrowing work.
For The House That Jack Built, he strips away much of the flesh in Nymphomaniac, keeps the chassis nearly intact, and fills it up with some of the most nasty and fascinating material he has ever conceived.
“If you feel like screaming, I definitely think that you should.”
For a film centering on a serial killer who treats murder as art, von Trier not just depicts his titular character (played by an astonishing Matt Dillon) as an artisan but also a theorist.
Structured in five chapters featuring five ‘incidents’, the film warms us up with Uma Thurman’s character hitching a ride in Jack’s van, and then proceeds into very dark territory. The third chapter is possibly the most disturbing, centering on a mother and two young kids as Jack takes them out on a hunting trip.
Although running at 2½ hours, The House That Jack Built never feels overdrawn (learning a lesson from Nymphomaniac’s indulgences, including its plodding structure of flashbacks as recounted by two characters in a room whom we see). Here, von Trier smartly situates the entirety of the film in the ‘present tense’ as we witness Jack’s abhorrent deeds.
“The old cathedrals often have sublime artworks hidden away in the darkest corners for only God to see. The same goes for murder.”
At the same time, the narrative is punctuated by Jack’s recounts as he speaks to another character (voiced by Bruno Ganz) in hopes of justifying his behaviour—the key is that we don’t see them, and it works as if they are voiceovers with an omnipresence, taking on a metaphysical quality (cinephiles may draw allusions to Ganz’s role as an angel in Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987) here).
The commingling of brutal physical violence with intellectual discourse may come off as pretentious. But if you are on the same wavelength as von Trier—and he does make some splendid observations about the fallacies and ironies of human thought and action—you get a brilliant film that plays its games on its own terms, summing up with one of the year’s most terrifying final shots.