There is a moral compromise that is practically demanded to claim one's space within the Lars von Trier universe, a compromise not to be taken lightly yet a compromise that is akin to dancing around the lake of fire while occasionally dipping one's toe into the lake for a disturbing moment of refreshment.
Even claiming to be a von Trier fan is met with side-eyed wonder by anyone familiar with his films, films such as 1996's Breaking the Waves, 2004's Dogville, and 2013's Nymphomaniac. Von Trier has a vision, but it's a rather disturbing one and while most of us believe he leaves his depravity on the big screen there's always that little voice inside that wouldn't be completely surprised should the controversial yet acclaimed director one day be found with bodies in his basement.
The truth is I've always had a certain degree of faith in evil.
Beneath the facade of joy and wonder and, yes, tenderness, lies the tattered and broken soul of an aging man who has had experiences that no human being should have.
And they change you.
We don't like to see it, of course, but they do. They really, really do.
I'm not evil, or at least I don't believe myself to be, but I'm also not normal and I don't believe normal is even possible.
Because, and we don't really like to acknowledge this but I believe it to be true, sometimes evil wins.
Von Trier has always seemingly had a fascination with human suffering, both experiencing it and inflicting it. The difference between von Trier and you and I is that individuals and large corporations give von Trier rather large amounts of money on a regular basis to give into his fascination and to make some sort of artistic sense of it all.
We go to therapy and hope that it works. Von Trier makes movies and waits for our reactions.
Oh, and how we react.
The House That Jack Built is von Trier's most accessible film to date, a film both incredibly depraved yet darkly and relentlessly funny. If I'm being completely honest, it's in many ways the film that I wanted American Psycho to be yet it's a film that American Psycho didn't really come close to being.
American Psycho the book? Yeah, it dances around these themes like an awkward wannabe hipster at a Huey Lewis & The News concert. American Psycho the movie? Director Mary Harron tried, I suppose, but the mishmash disappointment was an overly stylized and underwhelming experience that didn't begin to hint at the true depravity lingering amidst the pages of Bret Easton Ellis's disciplined and disturbing literary wonder.
There seems little doubt, of course, that The House That Jack Built isn't based upon any literary work or other fictional account. It's based, or so we're led to believe, on von Trier himself. The film is a joyously dark and depraved bit of belly-gazing, an introspective work that can and should trigger more than a little of self-examination and cultural discussion.
But, of course, the challenge becomes that as a society we've set aside the ability to discuss things in favor of impulsive judgment and quick condemnation. When something disturbs us, we condemn to a hellish existence.
We don't discuss.
Von Trier's films have always gone deeper and darker and more depraved than most films created by respected filmmakers. That's really the snag for most people - von Trier is a gifted filmmaker and there's practically no denying it. He isn't some hack like Dinesh D'Souza creating agenda-driven crap that looks like it was made using a Polaroid One-Step. Von Trier's films, even at their darkest, are immensely well-made films filled with moral complexity and psychological layers.
You want to easily dismiss them, but you can't easily dismiss them.
The House That Jack Built feels, at first glance, like many other films that von Trier has made. It doesn't take one long, however, to realize that there's more going on here and it doesn't take much longer to realize that The House That Jack Built is both von Trier's most personal film to date and, one could dare say, also his most greatest.
The film stars Matt Dillon, no pink flamingoes to be found here, as Jack. Jack is a relentless, disturbing, and downright entertaining OCD-afflicted serial killer whose every kill is presented here as a social commentary of sorts. It may not be the kind of social commentary that you're interested in, but it is social commentary and it's vivid and graphic and clear and pointed.
Von Trier knows exactly what he's saying here.
It's that knowledge that may prove to be most disturbing, especially for a guy whose expressed sympathy toward Hitler led to his banning from Cannes Film Festival ... at least until the Cannes judges were entertained again by one his films, this one, and he found himself back in the spotlight.
But then again, that's entirely part of von Trier's point here.
And he has a point.
The House That Jack Built presents itself essentially through five vignettes, or kills, each filmed in increasingly drawn out and rather graphic ways as Jack builds upon his own inner artistry and as that inner dialogue that drives everything he does becomes increasingly dominant and overwhelming.
At times, we're left with the aching awareness that Jack knows exactly what he's doing but we're also left with the even more aching question of "Can he actually control it?"
The art in this violence, once again, is practically undeniable as Glenn Gould melodies butt heads with William Blake poetry and concentration camps and earlier works by von Trier himself. There's so much being said here that you practically wish you could slow down the screen to try to understand it all.
But, you can't.
It may be tempting to think that von Trier is absolving himself of any particular sins here, but that's an overly simplistic interpretation that doesn't quite fit within the framework of everything that unfolds in The House That Jack Built.
Von Trier certainly isn't, on the other hand, declaring himself any kind of sinner or owning any kind of guilt.
There's a middle ground, it would seem, and that's where much of The House That Jack Built largely exists.
What's most devastating about The House That Jack Built is not the graphic nature nor the depravity of the acts themselves, but the ways in which von Trier frames them as part of the human experience.
Jack is human. His victims are human. Evil is part of the human experience. We are both good and bad, innocent and depraved. We love and we kill with equal enthusiasm and passion and artistry.
When Jack kills a young woman he refers to only as "Simple," played with vulnerable perfection by Riley Keough, it only takes moments until we care about the couple. It seems as if they are a couple, but we've been given no indication whatsoever up to this point that Jack is capable of anything resembling humanity or romance or anything of lasting permanence.
Then, of course, our knowledge is affirmed.
The film's opening scene, involving Uma Thurman as a woman on the side of the road next to a broken down vehicle who is practically begging with those taunting eyes to meet her end, is both devilish and delightful in the ways that it introduces to the Jack we are about to know for the next 2 1/2 hours.
It would be easy to dismiss The House That Jack Built as simply another depraved serial killer flick, yet another cinematic example of von Trier's misogynistic ways. But, once again, von Trier is simply too talented to keep things that simple and Jack's ongoing dialogue with a mysterious presence known only as Verge, somewhat ironically played by Bruno Ganz, whose cinematic portrayal of Hitler is one of cinema's best, never lets us forget that this is a film that is saying much more and going much further.
The House That Jack Built features what may very well be Matt Dillon's best performance to date, the kind of performance that lingers in your psyche' for so long that you may never be able to watch his earlier teen fare ever again. It's both evil and exhilarating, illuminating and absolutely blinding.
The House That Jack Built is both one of 2018's best films and, I can easily say, a film that I'll likely never watch again. Available currently on VOD in an R-rated format that skims about five minutes off the original director's cut that this critic viewed, The House That Jack Built isn't truly depraved or disturbing or entertaining or brilliant.
It's von Trier.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic