There’s a moment in Lars Von Trier’s latest film where Jack, the titular serial killer portrayed by Matt Dillon, eludes the police while dragging a body behind his van, set to David Bowie’s ‘Fame’. He guns the engine and retreats to his hideout — a back alley lock-up with a huge walk-in freezer — amazed at his own good fortune. The absurdity of this scene speaks to a wider theme in The House That Jack Built, which pushes and punishes audiences with a brutal onslaught of violent and grotesque images juxtaposed with pitch black comedy in search of deeper meaning, and perhaps — just perhaps — pointing out how ridiculous the art of filmmaking itself is.
The film sees Jack, a violent psychopath and aspiring architect, recall five ‘random incidents’ to a mysterious figure named Virge, as they undertake a journey together. These incidents are murders, and Jack recounts the gory details to his unamused companion in a last-ditch attempt to make sense of himself. The episodic structure sees Jack our constant guide, and he’s as unreliable a narrator as they come, portrayed masterfully by Matt Dillon who forces us to constantly reevaluate what we know about this depraved anti-hero.
Over the course of 155 minutes, Von Trier riffs on religion, the value of art, Bob Dylan, and the idea of cinema as violence. It’s clear this horror film isn’t really about the murders — it’s a film about filmmaking, Von Trier reflecting on his own controversial history and the act of presenting your own heart up for mass-consumption. As things reach an awe-inspiring climax, it becomes increasingly obvious this is Lars Von Trier’s version of a comedy, intended to provoke a reaction.
There’s even something cartoonish about the violence (which is the film’s more gleefully controversial element) which suggests Von Trier doesn’t glorify Jack — in fact, there’s a sense he’s a sad, strange little man whose violent acts speak to deep character flaws. There’s no redemptive narrative arc to The House That Jack Built; it’s murder as farce, and if you can stomach it, you’re in for one hell of a trip.