It’s difficult not to view everything in writer-director Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built as somehow being about the man himself. The film may follow the bizarre and grotesque journey of its titular character on his descent into… well, you’ll see, but it never escapes that essential truth. Like everything else in the film though: this is by design. Which is to say, von Trier knows exactly what he’s doing. And he likely knows exactly what you’re thinking as he’s doing it. The important thing here is: everything is about him.
Still, the film. Framed around a (mostly) off-screen conversation between Jack (an engaging Matt Dillon) and Virg (Bruno Ganz), The House That Jack Built recounts five “incidences” from the former’s life as a serial murderer. Since this is a von Trier film, Jack’s work is performed with a dash of humour—pitch black, but there nonetheless—while also serving a grander purpose. In this instance, von Trier cuts interstitial sequences atop the violence to form a treatise on art and morality meant to engage (and enrage) by juxtaposition to, say, Jack hacking off a woman’s breast or stuffing a dead boy into a taxidermist’s nightmare. As hard as the film is to watch at times, the theme is easy enough to see: von Trier draws a straight line between the grizzly action on camera, what his role is in making it happen, and how you feel about it (and him, of course). I mostly wondered what a less objectionable von Trier film would look like—assuming such a thing was even possible.
The end of The House That Jack Built is inevitable. It doesn’t take a literary scholar to understand who Virg is, or where Jack is ultimately heading. But there we are again: von Trier knows this. He knows you know. He spends 2.5 hours testing your patience with torture, misogyny, and thinly veiled apologia about his own artistic impulses. He knows you’ll hate him by the end of this film. In fact, doing so would confirm what he already believed before he made it. If only von Trier’s talent wasn’t so painfully obvious, maybe then he’d be easier to ignore. As it is: you win Lars, now go to hell.