Director: Lars Von Trier
Stars: Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman
Jack Sprat goes rogue
Lars Von Trier, the delightful Dane returns with yet another controversial film drenched in misery. After receiving a ban from Cannes, regarding some unfortunate Hitler comments during the Melancholia press release, 2013’s Nymphomaniac double-bill was refused by the prestigious festival. However, it would seem that the frogs have forgiven our Lars as the hotly anticipated, The House that Jack Built was granted a Cannes premiere which sparked a mass walk out by all the sensitive snowflakes attending. Cannes is notoriously filled with drama queens who hiss and boo at the screen, so those expecting a super-sickening gore fest in the vein of A Serbian Film may find themselves sorely disappointed… Or delighted depending on what you’re looking for.
The House that Jack Built is centred around Matt Dillon, a vicious psychopath conversing with Bruno Ganz about five incidents in his life (split into five chapters) focused on brutal murder. It’s a structure similar to Lars’ previous epic, Nymphomaniac although Dillon does like to highlight how each incident is random, therefore creating a lack of chronology. There’s also plenty of digressions in the dialogue often illustrated by stock footage or illustrations, although these feel slightly less fanciful than the humorous one’s used in Nymphomaniac.
The film is basically a giant character study in which the audience is forced to spend two and a half hours in the head of a mad man, which probably doesn’t sound like much fun to most normal people, but weirdos like me thrive off this stuff. Starting off softly with a light slam to Uma Thurman’s head via a jack hammer, the film slowly notches up the brutality until the shocking crescendo engraves some seriously disturbing imagery into your mind. Some of the violence does feel like Lars trying to shock for the sake of it, but each chapter does explore different layers to the character and the notion of art itself. Parallels can be drawn between the protagonist and the director, although let’s hope that Lars doesn’t stock bodies in his freezer.
The film is overlong and does get bogged down in some contrived pseudo-intellectual dialogue at times which could have easily made it onto the cutting room floor. In fact, most of the film’s digressions could’ve been cut as they don’t really add much to the plot. Talking of plot, I didn’t really think there was much of one and the film would’ve benefited from a clearer sense of narrative. We see all the debauched acts but the film never lets us into the reasons why Jack does this. It would’ve been interesting to see him growing up and his family life, but we’re only ever treated to mere glimpses of him as a boy. It just feels like a missed opportunity to create a character as enthralling as Joe in Nymphomaniac or Bess in Breaking the Waves.
There’s also a lack of suspense or tension during the incidents as we’re all aware that Jack’s going to kill all his victims with ease and he does! There’s a surprising amount of dark comedy though which was nice to see as well as some stunning cinematography which creates beauty in the brutality. I also was not expecting the hauntingly surreal epilogue which had the feel of Dale Cooper’s bizarre red room trip near the beginning of Twin Peaks: The Return. This sequence really is Lars at the height of his hypnotic directing powers.
There’s no denying that Lars is a great director and The House that Jack Built isn’t far off a great film, it’s just not quite as striking as the director’s previous outputs. There’s talk of this being his last film and it wouldn’t be a bad note to end on, however part of me does wish that he’ll put his ego and desire to shock to one side and create something as emotionally extraordinary as Dancer in the Dark or Breaking the Waves just one more time.