This review was originally published as part of our Cannes Film Festival coverage on 16/05/2018.
Lars Von Trier is back with The House that Jack Built, a 150-minute grotesque epic going deep inside the mind of a serial killer. Does it confirm his genius and justify his provocations or is it the attention-seeking trash of a playground bully? Does anyone care anymore?
On a technical level, The House that Jack Built is brilliant. Putting politics and morals aside, Von Trier is a supreme filmmaker showing great intelligence, wit and formal precision. He’s blessed with a revelatory performance from Matt Dillon as Jack, a dry and domineering presence who carries a kind of humdrum terror.
What sets it apart is Von Trier’s use of a narrator, unseen until the epilogue, to interrogate both Jack’s actions and Von Trier’s choices in depicting them. Jack compares his first kill to a work of art, and the narrator’s response? “Art is a terrible excuse for violence”.
Jack’s big argument here is for the value of negative depictions. He claims there is an aesthetic quality to violence. He talks about ‘The Noble Rot’, a process of letting grapes decay to increase their sweetness. Most controversially of all, he argues that there is beauty in acts of mass destruction like the Holocaust. Or is it Von Trier making these arguments? You get the sense this is the intellectual bait Von Trier is delighted at himself for setting, but really, what’s clever or insightful about any of the above?
Von Trier’s ruminations on extreme violence and its depiction in art would be worth considering if he weren’t adding more bodies to the pile in the next frame. He’s a brilliant filmmaker, but why would anyone want to waste their brief time on earth making hollow, provocative defences of human cruelty? As the narrator says to Jack: “Weren’t you going to build something?”
CAST: Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman
DIRECTOR: Lars Von Trier
WRITER: Lars Von Trier, Jenle Hallund
SYNOPSIS: The story follows Jack, a highly intelligent serial killer over the course of 12 years and depicts the murders that truly develop Jack as a serial killer.