Going into The House That Jack Built, I knew virtually nothing about Lars von Trier's latest (and possibly final) film. Just that it was about a serious killer, set in the 70s. But the fact that it's a von Trier is a dead giveaway this wasn't going to be your average, run-of-the-mill narrative-based film. Walk-out rates in Cannes were pretty high and even though the audience was considerably smaller when I went to watch it, we ended up with noticeably less people that what we started with. Even so, this is one of von Trier's better films, although not one that comes with a general recommendation.
With films like Europa, Epidemic and Antichrist (while not forgetting The Kingdom) under his belt, Lars von Trier has already earned his chops in the horror genre. That said, don't go in expecting a basic genre film, because you're bound to leave disappointed. The House That Jack Built contains several scenes that wouldn't feel out of place in even the meanest of horror flicks, but there isn't much conventional horror fun to be gained from these moments. They are there as essential parts of the experience that help sculpt Jack's profile, simultaneously illustrating some underlying points von Trier touches upon.
While all of that sounds quite grim and dark, don't expect some Tarkovsky-like severity and/or gravity either. This isn't just another relentless and nihilistic descent into the mind of a ruthless serial killer, there's actually a lot of room for lighter touches, with the film at times unabashedly treading into dark comedy territory. Quite successfully too. It's sure to offend some people and I'm sure it explains the high walk-out rates, but when you're getting into a von Trier film you know you could run into some unpleasantness, as the man is known for shocking his audience (or, put more sensibly, not caring much for their sensibilities).
The story is split into five different chapters (and one elongated epilogue). Each chapter recounts a different incident that teaches us something new about Jack's persona. In between the chapters von Trier finds some time to delve a bit deeper into the themes of his film. These parts are by far the least interesting though, unless you love the many references to history and art. The epilogue ties everything together and provides fitting closure, although those who are already at the limits of their patience might feel differently.
Over the years von Trier perfected his visual signature, though the result isn't quite as consistent as it sounds. While some shots are hyper-stylized, others refer more closely to von Trier's Dogme period and I even noticed some leftovers from the angular camera movement experiments in of The Boss of It All. At times The House That Jack Built feels more like a visual compilation of von Trier's career rather than a film with a coherent cinematographic vision, but the choices made are always reasonable and effective. There's a lot to like here, even though not all of it goes well together.
The soundtrack is by far one of the weaker parts of the film. It's pretty inconspicuous, with some older pop songs loosely tied to the events on screen and some instrumental pieces mostly filling in the gaps. For a director like von Trier, this is simply not enough. While the rest of his film is so elaborately constructed, the soundtrack feels more than just a little neglected. Not that it's actually bad or distracting, but you'd expect someone like von Trier to aim a quite a bit higher than that.
Matt Dillon was cast for the lead role, a somewhat surprising choice on paper that ends up working really well. It's been a while since I saw Dillon and even though I've never been a big fan of his work, he really makes the character his own here. No doubt one of his most memorable performances so far. Just as important is the part of Bruno Ganz (Verge), even though it's just voice work for the bigger portion of the film. The rest of the cast is on point too, but most of them are merely passing through (which is to be expected when your lead character is a serial killer) and don't really have enough wiggle room to make a lasting impression.
The House That Jack Built focuses primarily on its lead characters and his violent urges, but von Trier also finds room to voice his own thoughts through conversations between Jack and Verge. These talks are mostly about the beauty and artistry in decay, inflated artist egos and other similarly popular artsy topics. Not the most interesting or original material to be honest and von Trier does go a little overboard towards the end of the film (excluding the epilogue), but it doesn't really take away from the film either. It just makes it that bit more von Trier.
The House That Jack Built isn't for everyone, then again von Trier has been around for a while now and most people should know what to expect when they choose to watch one of his films. I'm not an univocal fan of his work, but when all the stars align the man is capable of directing solid masterpieces. His latest is a strange but gratifying mix of drama, horror and comedy, with enough shock value to force some to leave while also showing enough wit to draw laughs from the ones that persist. An easy recommend if you like films that don't conform to the norm, even so that doesn't mean you'll end up liking this one.