There’s a thin line between black comedy and visceral horror, and Lars von Trier doesn’t so much blur it in The House That Jack Built, as drive a 10-ton truck right through the middle of it. One scene in particular manages to be horribly, hauntingly chilling… and somehow – God forgive me – utterly hilarious.
The titular Jack (Matt Dillon) is a serial killer and his latest victims are a mum and her two young sons (he has been dating the mother, played by Sofie Gråbøl, although we see nothing of their courtship). What happens to them is repulsive and beyond brutal. But because von Trier was never going to give us anything so simple as a straight-no-chaser horror film, the deaths – and their aftermath – are also ghoulishly funny. All you can do is admire the sheer savage chutzpah of it, whilst repressing the shameful instinct to laugh.
Of course, there’s an element of satire in everything the Danish auteur does, and I suspect a certain disdain for the silliness of many horror films is deliberately a part of the movie’s DNA. As if he has seen Saw or The Purge in a packed cinema and been made to wonder why he’s the only audience member guffawing his head off. Some of the imagery and ideas here (a structure made out of frozen dead bodies, an attempt to shoot multiple victims through the head with a single bullet) are outlandish and perverse but could have been purloined from any Hollywood chiller since The Silence Of The Lambs or Seven.
The film is split into five chapters – or ‘incidents’ – spread over a 12-year period. Each segment focusses on one particular murder Jack commits – characters played by Uma Thurman and Riley Keough also meet grisly ends – as he relates the details of his ‘career’ to an initially unseen ‘confessor’, called Verge (Bruno Ganz). The storytelling device is similar to the one von Trier used in Nymphomania (2013), where Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Joe divulged her sexual history to Stellan Skarsgård’s Seligman, although it quickly becomes clear here that Jack and Verge are in a lift, descending somewhere a lot deeper and darker than the basement.
Serial killers are often portrayed in film with a nod and a wink. They’re charismatic geniuses who kill people who probably deserve it (Hannibal Lecter), the deranged embodiment of Yuppie capitalism (Patrick Bateman), arbiters of morality playing clever mind games with clueless cops (John Doe). Dillon’s Jack is different. He might pretentiously compare his inhuman acts to the work of a great artist, even posing corpses and photographing them, but he’s really just someone who slaughters people for kicks, mostly defenceless women.
There’s no skill to it and he even admits a lot of his success over the years is down to dumb luck (a sudden rain storm washes away the plentiful evidence from one murder) and the ineptitude of local law enforcement. He doesn’t even dispose of the bodies properly, instead storing them in a walk-in freezer unit. They hang around as reminders of his depravity and as a pitch-black running joke. Jack – or ‘Mr Sophistication’, as one newspaper erroneously dubs him – is no artist; the guy’s a hack, who’d get kicked out of the serial killers’ guild for ill-preparedness and lazy opportunism.
There is, of course, a subtext to what is going on here so unsubtle I’m surprised flashing lights and a loud siren didn’t interrupt the film every time it reared its head. As much as The House That Jack Built is a movie about a serial killer, its real preoccupation is the chequered history of the director himself. As full of self-justification as it is self-loathing, the film is Von Trier’s attempt to tackle the various brickbats that have assailed him and his films over the years. It's almost as if LVT is speaking directly through his creation as Jack locks verbal horns with Verge about misogyny, addiction and even separating the art from the artist (or, as Jack puts it, “Don't look at the axe, look at the works”).
The film suffered numerous walkouts at Cannes – on the director’s first return to the festival since 2011’s unsavoury ‘Hitler’ incident – and some critics have been excoriating (“Lars von Trier is a stupid, arrogant troll” reads one). Detractors have taken the severest umbrage at the scene in which Jack kills Keough’s character, who he derisively nicknames ‘Simple’. The murder ends with him cutting off her breast, which has rekindled all the old accusations of misogyny. But while Jack is a woman-hating scumbag, essayed to smirking perfection by Dillon, his need to kill and mutilate ‘Simple’ goes beyond sex or gender.
There’s an innocence about Keough’s character and it seems to be a trait Jack despises; it’s why we see him cutting the leg off a duckling as a child, why earlier he takes such delight in the murder of the two kids and the terrible ordeal he puts their poor mother through. He’s a sadist and a psychopath and it’s von Trier’s way of snatching away any remaining vestige of antihero cool the audience – perhaps with fond memories of Dillon in Wild Things or Drugstore Cowboy – might think he possesses.
More than that, though, ‘Simple’ has to suffer because she isn’t very bright and, deep down, for all his airy pontificating, Jack fears he’s just like her. He couldn’t make it as an architect and, throughout the film, von Trier returns again and again to his inability to design and build a house. It’s almost a form of impotence. Jack sees something of his own intellectual failings in ‘Simple’ and he hates her – and himself – for it.
For a film so jam-packed with ‘stuff’ and a runtime of two-and-a-half hours, The House That Jack Built is surprisingly light on its feet. It never stands still for a moment, as von Trier cuts from Jack and Verge's increasingly fractious conversations, to flashbacks detailing his kills, to jumbles of stills and clips (the director's past movies amongst them) as William Blake, classical pianist Glenn Gould and Goethe are all invoked to illustrate Jack's thoughts on music, art, architecture and more. There are even segments in which von Trier homages Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues and Bowie's sublime Fame is a constant nagging presence on the soundtrack, frequently used as a punchline to Jack's various atrocities. It's chaotic – like the fractured psyche of its protagonist and quite possibly its creator too.