The House That Jack Built review – self-congratulatory serial-killer gorefest

Matt Dillon plays an architect turned murderer in Lars von Trier’s latest provocation, which plays out with the director’s customary humourlessness

Some people think Hugh Jackman is the greatest incarnation of Phineas T Barnum. Wrong. It is actually Lars von Trier, the giggling charlatan-genius of world cinema, presiding over an unending three-ring circus of silliness and provocation. Those other shock-tacticians of yore, Haneke, Noé and Reygadas, might have developed in their style. Not Lars. He is the Peter Pan of the Euro-arthouse wind-up.

Now he is back with this shallow and self-congratulatory serial-killer gorefest set, like so many of his other films, in that sketchily imagined faux America that weirdly resembles rural Denmark. After the longish enforced absence that followed his “I’m a Nazi” gag at a 2011 press conference (but perhaps not longish enough), Von Trier has reappeared to give the finger to all America’s liberal complainers. He casts Uma Thurman – yes, the male-auteur-nemesis #MeToo advocate Uma Thurman – as a very, very stupid victim of a serial killer who kind of has it coming to her. It’s a film that also mocks the sexual politics of grievance and for good measure makes light of tightening up America’s gun laws. In contrast to how Von Trier presents himself personally to saucer-eyed interviewers and profile-writers, his filmic self-belief is in vigorous health.

When this film premiered at Cannes, I was astonished at the deadly seriousness with which pundits decided it was a “self-critique”, a study of his own pain as a serial creator. I think you could hear Von Trier laughing from space. You have to admire his situationist brilliance at toying with the audience and the media.

His latest tongue-in-cheek nightmare The House That Jack Built is two and a half hours long but seems much longer – longer than Bayreuth, more vainglorious than Bayreuth. It is an ordeal of gruesomeness and tiresomeness. But it concludes with what I must concede is a spectacular horror finale. The film ends with a colossal but semi-serious bang, an extravagant visual flourish and a cheeky musical outro over the closing credits.

Matt Dillon plays Jack, a serial killer with about 60 kills under his belt, recounting his grisly career to a man played by Bruno Ganz, on whom we don’t lay eyes until the end. Jack is an intellectually accomplished architect and engineer of private means – the casting of Dillon makes this a stretch – who is a connoisseur of European art and history, a summary of which cheekily includes visual quotations of Von Trier’s own films. But Jack will keep gravitating to his pet subject: the Third Reich! But of course.

On the road to nowhere … Uma Thurman.
On the road to nowhere … Uma Thurman. Photograph: Allstar/Zentropa Entertainments

Jack has killed women, mainly women, and in a gloatingly sadistic manner. He has dismembered them and kept their body parts as souvenirs. He has killed children and also men. But perhaps the most memorably evil thing he has ever done is shown in flashback when Jack, as a boy, amputates the foot of a sweet yellow duckling with a pair of pliers, and then places the poor animal back in the water to watch it wobble round and round. This moment really did look absolutely, horribly real. Snuff animal cruelty.

But there is an awful lot of boring talking, talking, talking, dialogue in American-English-Google-translated-from-Danish. Faces in extreme murkily lit closeup. Characterisation and narrative events that look improbable rather than mysterious or strange. This is a film that stolidly withholds the horror-thrill that almost any other kind of serial killer film will give you – from The Silence of the Lambs, to Saw, or Seven, or Zodiac, or Kind Hearts and Coronets. And it doesn’t have the pure gonzo-grossout ecstasy of The Human Centipede, although I suspect that Von Trier may have had that in the back of his mind for its final victims.

No, it is all leading up to the final death-metal Gustave Doré sequence, which gives the whole movie the structure and rhythm of an outrageously ambitious shaggy-dog joke. The giganticism of its coda puts the long, slow, nasty drear of what has gone before into a sort of perspective, and it is ingenious in its way, but like so much of what Von Trier does, the bang is like bursting a paper bag. Very very loudly. It makes for a jump and a shriek. But afterwards it doesn’t stay in your mind, other than to make you shake your head at its distinctive humourless silliness. The mutilated duckling, though. That will stay in my mind. I wish it wouldn’t.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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