At a time when the filmmaking world, stirred by the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, is at least pondering the way female characters are depicted on screen, in wades Lars von Trier with a grim orgy of violence against women. Well, you couldn’t accuse the Dane of reading the room. With its cod philosophising about art’s relationship with destruction and some colossal self-regard, ‘The House That Jack Built’ aims for profundity but achieves only mild queasiness. It’s an empty provocation salvaged by one or two moments of macabre wit and a game depiction of psychopathy from Matt Dillon as the mass-killing engineer of the title.
The film’s murders take place over 20-odd years in an indeterminate corner of the Pacific Northwest. The loquacious Jack recalls the killings in a series of voiceover interviews with the elderly and – it has to be said – often fairly bored-sounding Verge, a man whose true nature only becomes clear later in the movie. In a touch that’s clearly meant to be subversive, the first attack is provoked by a woman; Uma Thurman’s pushy flat-tyre victim goads and cajoles Jack as he begrudgingly drives her to a garage. She even gives him the handy tip of burying her body six feet down ‘so the foxes don’t dig it up’. But when she questions his masculinity, he snaps. The murder weapon is a jack – Von Trier is not above a bad pun – and many more implements follow in the years ahead, including most horrifically, a hunting rifle and a kitchen knife.
The most sharply observed moments come early on as Jack learns the ropes. His second murder ends in an impromptu blizzard of housework as his OCD keeps him driving him back to the crime scene for one last scrub. Dillon brings an impressive otherness to this man; at other times, he depicts him as a blue-collar misfit – more Al Bundy than Ted Bundy. It’s hard to keep track of Jack’s arc from that point, except that, Verge aside, he’s the only person in the film who isn’t either childishly trusting or an idiot. Either way, they tend to end stacked up in Jack’s cold storage locker, where the gruesomeness even extends to some amateur taxidermy.
Worse even than the the killings, though, is the talking. Jack’s endless ruminations to Verge about how great art springs forth from extreme violence are embroidered with clips of virtuoso pianist Glenn Gould, William Blake paintings and explanations of how tigers work. There’s a bit with Hitler – of course there is – and even clips from Von Trier’s own films, as if we don’t already have our hands full with this one. It’s part bloodbath, party undergraduate anthropology thesis – a combination you’d hesitate to say exactly gels. It’s not that you can’t see what Von Trier is getting at, it’s just you wish he’d get there quicker and without all the desecrated bodies. For most of its hefty runtime, ‘The House That Jack Built’ is just a slog.