Pull your pants down in public, you’re an exhibitionist; pull someone else’s down, you’re a sadist; pull someone else’s down and talk about it, you’re a moral philosopher. That’s the mantle that Lars von Trier, a longtime filmmaker of cynicism and cruelty, adopts in his new film, “The House That Jack Built.” It’s a drama about a serial killer named Jack (Matt Dillon), and it depicts his reminiscences of five episodes of murder from among the dozens that he has committed, interspersed with his intellectualizing rationalizations of his life of crime. The action is set in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, yet it hardly makes contact with the particulars of those times (other than props and costumes). Rather, von Trier relies on the film’s tired premise (yet another serial-killer movie, set this time in an age before cell phones) to embrace a wide (though absurdly shallow) range of cultural history.
The movie has a framing device that’s a bit of a mystery at the start: throughout his criminal exploits, Jack is in internal dialogue with another, unseen character, whom he calls Verge (voiced by Bruno Ganz). They’re on a long trip together: Verge is leading, Jack is following, and, in the course of their journey, Jack is confessing to a series of what he calls “randomly chosen incidents” selected from his twelve-year killing spree. Those reminiscences, punctuated by the men’s dialogue, are the substance of the film, and it soon becomes clear that Verge is Virg—i.e., Virgil, who, as in Dante’s Inferno, is guiding the protagonist’s soul down to Hell.
Sounds cool on paper. Yet the movie’s five episodes of murder, sticking close to Jack’s confessions, offer little backstory and little context outside his arachnid schemes. In effect, each of the movie’s five segments is an extended variety of the ear-cutting in Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs”: Jack makes contact with, or is already in the company of, his victims, and he toys with them, in anticipation of what may be the moment of opportunity or only the moment of desire, in which he can enact the violent plan he has in mind. (There is an unrated director’s cut of the film that contains approximately four minutes of additional material, which I haven’t seen, but the R-rated version includes plenty of gore and horror. For instance, there’s a sickening scene in which Jack cuts off a woman’s breasts, a deed that, reportedly, is depicted more explicitly in the longer version.) Each murder also has its aftermath: Jack owns a walk-in freezer in a desolate part of town (the action is set in the state of Washington), where he stashes—rather, stores—the bodies of his victims, and his transportation of the bodies there, in his red van, along with the circumstances of their storage, becomes a part of the action as well.
Only a few brief sequences offer any psychological illumination of Jack’s amoral pathology. In one, he candidly presents himself as an emotionally inert person who, in order not to attract suspicion,, teaches himself to feign emotional responses, practicing making faces in a mirror to express emotion; in effect, he trains himself to become an actor, modelling his facial expressions on those of people in closeup news images that he has pasted onto the wall around his mirror. A similar touch of psychological insight arrives in the aftermath of a killing, when Jack—admitting, in voice-over, his obsessive tendencies and compulsive cleanliness—imagines bloodstains in unlikely places in a victim’s house and returns to the scene of the crime to examine those places (such as the wall space behind a hanging picture). There, von Trier poignantly (if glancingly) suggests the torments that Jack endures as an element of his mental illness. Otherwise, von Trier does little but revisit his longtime theme: the world’s eternal duo of the calculating predator and the ignorant victim. Here, Jack presents it in a description of the tiger and the lamb (with reference to poems by William Blake), neither of which is guilty and both of which are merely following their natures.
Jack’s confessional narration also has the air of a self-justification, which he delivers in the form of his philosophical discourses on aesthetics. In his youth, Jack aspired to become an architect; he complied with his mother’s insistence that he become an engineer instead, and, now, having inherited a large (unspecified) sum of money, he attempts to satisfy his long-frustrated ambition. In a farcically literal rendering of the movie’s title, he buys a remote piece of lakeside property, designs a small house that he builds as a paper model in his pristine studio, and sets out to build it. “The House That Jack Built” depicts Jack’s architectural frustrations and exertions as his longtime and central motive for his career of murder.
This theme of frustrated artistry leading to a life of murder suggests, from the start, that “The House That Jack Built”—the first film that von Trier has made since “Nymphomaniac,” from 2013—is a direct offshoot of, or perhaps a trolling follow-up to, the infamous press conference he gave at the Cannes Film Festival, in 2011. At the conference, which was meant to be centered on his film “Melancholia,” he spoke with an offensive frivolity about Jews and Nazis. He said, among other things, “I understand Hitler. But I think he did some wrong things, yes, absolutely, but I can see him sitting in his bunker in the end . . . I think I understand the man. He’s not what you would call a good guy but I understand much about him, and I sympathize with him a little bit, yes.” He also praised Albert Speer’s artistic sensibility and the realization of it in the Nazi regime. Von Trier’s remarks got him banned from Cannes, to which he returned only this year, with “The House That Jack Built.” In the character of Jack, he presents a starkly simplistic illustration of the shibboleth that it was Hitler’s failed artistic career that led him to a sadistic politics.
Jack’s discussions with Virgil take a philosophical-historical turn that’s centered on the aesthetics of killing—and that both allude to one of the most famous modern art works about the Holocaust, “Schindler’s List.” In that film, in a scene of trivializing vulgarity, Spielberg joins a scene of S.S. officers’ murderous raid of an apartment building’s Jewish residents to a performance of a Bach keyboard work. Von Trier, doubling down on Spielberg’s wink and nudge about the dubious moral implications of classical culture, repeatedly and even obsessively punctuates “The House That Jack Built” with recurring inserts of a clip, from the 1959 documentary “Off the Record,” of the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould playing Bach—casually, devoutly, joyfully—in the living room of his isolated country house. Von Trier adds to the cultural mishmash a riff by Jack in praise of Speer’s concept of the beauty of ruins and the steps that Speer took to realize it, a parody of Bob Dylan’s onscreen cardboard sloganeering in D. A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary “Don’t Look Back,” a goofy sidebar of analogies on the production of sweet wine, and Jack’s dialectical joust with Virgil in which the Roman poet (speaking while his remarks are illustrated with majestic images of classic paintings) asserts bombastically that the essence of art is love.
Virgil’s statement is the philosophical straw man against which von Trier tilts. Jack—who expressly and recurrently refers to his murders as his art—defines beauty not in terms of love but in terms of what he calls icons, and he doesn’t mean soup cans or pop singers. Rather, Jack refers to images of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and other tyrants as supremely iconic, and asserts that they, and images of them, are beautiful art. What’s more, he presents their crimes as iconic as well, and, in a series of film clips that’s dominated by images of the Holocaust, of survivors of Auschwitz in the barracks, of piles of bony corpses being bulldozed into mass graves, he calls these atrocities art, says that they’re beautiful, and asserts that his own crimes should take their place in history alongside these other so-called art works.
What Jack ends up creating, as his ultimate work of art (and his ultimate house), is too aggressively and solemnly ridiculous to describe, let alone spoil. The trite story and frivolous speculations of “The House That Jack Built” might have gained authentic aesthetic resonance if, rather than casting Matt Dillon in the role of Jack, von Trier had played the role himself. Even if von Trier is no actor, the very amateurishness of his own incarnation of the philosophical serial killer might have created a sufficient distance from the action—while also invoking his own investment in it—to emphasize its personal and emotional underpinnings rather than its sensational effect.
The world may not need another serial-killer movie, but it’s certainly possible for an artist to make a significantly insightful work on the subject—just as the seemingly bottomless reprocessing of the Nazi phenomenon suggests the ongoing desire and the unsatisfied effort to understand it. Yet von Trier does neither; he simply dallies with disgusting images and ideas in a carefully calibrated, ante-upping ploy to attract attention—he is the best advertiser for himself in the modern-day movie business (as suggested in his emphasis on the primary value of iconic images). He’s the cinematic counterpart to the right-wing trolls who, in the mild guise of frank confrontation with difficult ideas, seek to normalize and extend the reach of their destructive program. I don’t think that von Trier is actually an extreme rightist, or any kind of ideologue, but, rather, that he’s a casual provocateur whose flip, adolescent café-table musings about the nature of art and the art of nature are as simplistically shocking as his gory and sadistic drama.
Von Trier gives the impression of understanding his role in the contemporary cinematic landscape and embracing it enthusiastically. His body of work, with “The House That Jack Built” at its forefront, is the negative image of the wan and sentimental so-called humanism that passes for the summit of the international art-house cinema, the cinema of Cannes, the cinema that’s all too often celebrated by bien-pensant critics. Von Trier, by contrast, is the mal-pensant filmmaker who, with a clever sense of calculation that is superior to his films themselves, gets the very same audience of progressive culturati to see his works of contemptuous inhumanity and give them prominent and careful consideration—to acclaim them, or even to insult them, which is just as good.
There’s a creaky joke in which the critic says, “I’ve seen this movie so that you don’t have to.” But when I write a review, it’s with the assumption that readers should see the movie in question—any movie worth writing about at length is, despite any shortcomings, worth experiencing for oneself. With “The House That Jack Built,” it’s different: the clearest way to confront its new levels of willful, attention-seeking provocation is to avoid it altogether.