Among his other virtues, Lars Von Trier has always been something of a troll. His movies often act as playful middle fingers to his harshest critics, gleefully confirming their accusations with a devil-may-care attitude. The approach has a rebellious appeal, but it’s also overshadowed some of Von Trier’s lesser works, which have made the mistake of putting shock value above quality. The House That Jack Built sees Von Trier’s devilish style at its best; it shamelessly aims to offend, but backs up its intentions with original, exciting filmmaking.
Our story begins in total darkness, with a conversation between Jack (Matt Dillon) and his mysterious guide Virgil (Bruno Ganz). Jack, a prolific serial killer, tells Virgil the stories of five murders he committed over his twelve-year career. An engineer by trade and would-be architect, Jack views these horrific acts as an art form, as indicated by his self-imposed nickname, “Mr. Sophistication.” As he walks Virgil through his greatest hits, the two debate the nature of art and Jack’s twisted understanding thereof, often wandering into musings on philosophy and history.
If this sounds pretentious, that’s because it is. For the most part, this film student-esque need to create something really deep, man, remains confined to Jack and Virgil’s dialogues, which the movie returns to periodically. Some of them achieve the artistic insight they’re shooting for, while others – including perhaps the most masturbatory sequence I’ve seen in a non-documentary – fall short. But even at its navel-gazing worst, The House That Jack Built is never boring. The handful of moments that don’t land still prove fascinating within the film’s greater context as a metaphorical self-reflection of its author.
The dialogues act as a framing device for the movie’s primary focus: the shocking exploits of its protagonist. These scenes are equal-parts transgressive and compelling, delving into Jack’s murders with uncompromising and decidedly un-Hollywood audacity. Lacking any jump-scares and rarely using a score, The House That Jack Built nonetheless manages to be a punishingly effective horror movie. Detractors will regard this as a cheap victory born of the movie’s sheer grisliness, but that’s not the case. The House That Jack Built’s horror runs deeper than simple displays of gore; if that were the only string to its bow, it would be forgotten with all the other empty pieces of torture porn. But this is clearly the work of a maestro, as evidenced by the unbearable suspense of the bloodless lead-ups to the murders. One particular image is the stuff of nightmares, and while its content is something naturally repulsive, it’s the movie’s craft that elevates it to the obscene.
For all its gruesomeness, The House That Jack Built is equally concerned with the banality of evil, building dread through chilly realism. This uneasy, slightly-off tone is the foundation of Dillon’s performance, which makes Jack frighteningly human. Possessed of the psychopath’s knack for blending in, Jack passes as perfectly normal when it suits him, and even at his most depraved he never feels like a caricature. He genuinely believes his deeds are righteous, and thanks to some amusingly sharp dialogue, there are times when he comes across as uncomfortably relatable. Credit is also due to a never-better Dillon, who refuses to ham it up and sells every side of Jack’s personality: the remorseless killer, the tortured artist, the neurotic obsessive.
But what makes this movie for me, the reason I left the theater smiling instead of gagging, comes straight from Von Trier’s prankster heart. Because it’s that somehow-innocent impulse that gives The House That Jack Built its greatest gift: a wicked sense of humor. The entire movie is sprinkled with some of the blackest comedy you’ll ever see, made all the more surprising by just how goddamn funny it is. Case in point: there’s a post-murder scene that’s played completely straight at first, but gradually transforms into what is essentially a comedy sketch, complete with a savage punchline. Equally amusing is the soundtrack, which delivers its handful of pop standards with devastating timing. These flashes of humor provide catharsis from the hard-to-watch scenes, making the movie as a whole far more palatable, and not coincidentally, better. They’re breaths of fresh air in a film that desperately needs them, and save The House That Jack Built from becoming another Antichrist, which was more endurance test than movie.
The film’s final stretch is a dreamlike journey into the underworld, boldly departing from the straightforward tone that precedes it. It’s a risky direction to take, but it works thanks to the suggestive breadcrumbs dropped throughout the story. The otherworldly visuals, brought to life by inventive special effects, carry real weight, especially in contrast to the rest of the movie’s relative naturalism. The House That Jack Built’s last scene carries this hellish imagery to its logical conclusion, ending on a note that’s striking, dark, and finally, hilarious. Say what you will about Lars Von Trier, but you’d be hard-pressed to find another director who can inspire gasps of terror and howls of laughter in the same movie.