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film review

Matt Dillon in The House That Jack Built.

The House That Jack Built

Written and directed by: Lars von Trier

Starring: Matt Dillon and Bruno Ganz

Classification: N/A; 152 minutes


1.5 out of 4 stars

Did you ever have a friend as a kid who, you thought every now and then, might be a sociopath? Someone always eager to crowd around the body of a dead bird, or stare just a few seconds too long at your bloody nose? While also loudly proclaiming just how messed up it was to be doing such a crazy thing? Watching The House That Jack Built, I wondered what the childhood friends of Lars von Trier must be thinking about today.

Over the course of a prolific and maddening career, the Danish filmmaker has done his best to convince audiences that he’s a thoroughly disturbed individual. What’s worse: a thoroughly disturbed individual who delights in making sure you know just exactly how whoa-boy-extreme his sensibilities are – an art-house provocateur crossed with a Mountain Dew: Code Red aficionado. Here’s Dogville, filled with rape. There’s Antichrist, rich with genital mutilation. And how about 5½ hours of Nymphomaniac, which culminates in a betrayal both severe and glumly predictable.

Von Trier’s work has long been fixated on humiliation, but what once at least flirted with humanism (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark) has eroded into unbearable narcissism. (Melancholia was a brief late-career respite, although von Trier did his best to derail the 2011 film’s publicity, as if ashamed to have made something so cruelty-free.)

Which brings us back again to The House That Jack Built, von Trier’s first film in five years, and the first of his that’s been allowed to play Cannes since the film festival booted him out over a “joke” about “understanding Hitler.” (Always the comedian, this guy.) The only truly shocking thing about this new work, though, is the fact it took this long for von Trier to make a movie about a serial killer. For a man who loves blunt provocation, the subject should’ve been first on his hit list.

The film opens with Jack (Matt Dillon) recounting five random “incidents” from his murder career to an unseen presence named Virgil (Bruno Ganz) as they embark on a journey to hell. Jack neatly fits the profile of a serial killer, with his wire-rimmed glasses, windowless van and alien manner when it comes to basic human emotion. When he starts killing (using guns, knives, a car jack), you’re not surprised, which must be a crushing disappointment for von Trier. Obviously the director’s hoping you pick up on his whole banality-of-evil shtick, but the exercise becomes more exhausting than disturbing.

Uma Thurman and Dillon in The House That Jack Built.

See Jack strangle a stranger before dragging her body behind his speeding van. See Jack hunt down a woman and her two children before performing amateur taxidermy. See Jack stab a woman and then leave a piece of her for the police.

Von Trier so badly wants to be reprehensible with his sudden and messy bursts of violence – especially in the unrated cut, which was screened for One! Night! Only! the other week in Toronto, in a bit of William Castle-esque marketing. Yet the chaos is empty, the edginess meaningless. The misogyny and narcissism are real – von Trier wallows like a hog in both – but the rest of the film is as fake as the corpses lining Jack’s cold-storage unit.

If von Trier is instead merely content telling a sick joke – and the soundtrack, including the repeated use of David Bowie’s Fame, suggests as much – it leads to a punchline we’ve all heard before. The same goes for Jack’s debates with Virgil on the purity of art, which teases an argument that von Trier simply is no longer equipped to make.

Dillon acquits himself all right, tasked with a trick his director isn’t able to pull off himself. And the film’s epilogue – in which Jack and Virgil venture deeper and deeper into The Divine Comedy – is visually interesting in a who-is-von-Trier-ripping-off-now? sense. (Answer: He’s partial to David LaChapelle and H.R. Giger.)

But if you have to put yourself through hell to get to hell, the journey is pointless.

The House That Jack Built is available Dec. 14 on iTunes Canada and video-on-demand.