By: Billy Cross
Love him or hate him, Lars von Trier is sure to dominate movie discussions with the release of his latest, The House That Jack Built. The discussions will typically fall into either a staunch defense of his impeccable genius or a virile takedown of his pretentious narcissism. In either case, hyperboles will fly. To me, his impish constitution has afforded him the title of Grand Agitator which, itself, is amusing. The House That Jack Built embodies that playfulness as a self-aware, reflective black comedy that winks at the audience while delivering unsettling violence.
The audience is privy to five random “incidents”, or murders, recalled by Jack (Matt Dillon) during an off-screen conversation with an older gentleman who goes by the name Verge (Bruno Ganz). Ultimately, Jack’s conversation becomes a deconstruction of art, describing his murders a such. He often compares his murders to that of Picasso, or even designers of World War II fighter jets. What may first seem like eccentricity turns out to be utter narcissism. He even goes as far as to call himself, “Mr. Sophistication”.
Still with me? If it sounds like pretension, you’d be surprised how glib all of it feels. One particular incident highlighting Jack’s OCD edges into an SNL digital short as he repeatedly finds himself revisiting the scene of a fresh murder in fear of leaving behind traces of blood, perhaps, under a lamp. On the other hand, the comedic scenes eventually give into the tension of his more elaborate murders, or such scenes as when he finds himself temporarily amused by manipulating a frozen corpse into a taxidermy experiment.
I’m curious to see what will be left out of the director’s cut to make way for the rated R version. Nothing during its two and a half hour runtime felt unnecessary. Much of this can be attributed to Matt Dillon’s presence on screen. As Jack, he’s menacing, but not overtly so. He is very much grounded unless, in one scene early on, he is practicing human emotions like smiling or anger in front of a mirror. You know, like a totally normal person. His stoned-face seriousness plays well in comedic ways in contrast to his compulsions.
Fans of Lars von Trier will find a lot to like here. Otherwise, there may be some interest in the actual story of Jack, but many may find Trier’s meta humor nauseating. I find myself in the middle, enough to appreciate his talent as a filmmaker, but not enough to take him seriously. I don’t even think he takes himself seriously, which is evident in The House That Jack Built. There’s no denying, though, that he is crafting unique movies that will get people talking.