THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT
Dir. Lars Von Trier; Starring Matt Dillon, Uma Thurman, Riley Keough; R18
By Tom Augustine
The decision any viewer needs to make when choosing to view Danish edgelord film-maker Lars Von Trier's latest is ultimately a moral one – the ongoing question of whether the art can be considered separate from the artist. It's a thorny, difficult question, one that largely rests with the viewer themselves – but Von Trier, with his new film The House that Jack Built, seems intent on skidding into that curve, and confronting both himself and his audience. A languorous, loosely structured serial killer yarn/polemic essay/therapy session, House is the story of psychotic killer Jack (Matt Dillon), as he recounts to an unseen narrator (the wonderful Bruno Ganz, in one of his last roles) five incidents in his storied career as a murderer. As is to be largely expected with Von Trier, who has always delighted in pushing his audiences to the edge of taste and beyond, there are no taboos seemingly off the table. Covering hideous acts of violence toward women, children and animals, and consistently bearing the smug remove of a film-maker confident he is smarter than his viewer, it's ugly in almost every sense of the word.
That the film is sadistic, self-satisfied and navel-gazing isn't a huge surprise considering the output of this film-maker, but what is surprising about House is how limp and uninspired so much of it feels. Shot largely in documentary-style shaky-cam, employing jump cuts liberally throughout, the film largely does away with subtext or subtlety, and anyone with even a passing understanding of the film-maker will see the links Von Trier is attempting to make between himself and the eponymous Jack. Much like Jack, Von Trier wants you to think, the director is a reprehensible man who creates great art, and he knows the hideous things he's (allegedly) done have earned him damnation, but don't you just love him for it?
And yet, Von Trier's work here is as bland as anything in his career – despite the fact that the film attempts repeatedly to one-up itself with how horrific and remorseless Dillon's killer can become, with every new nightmare presented so gleefully and yet so vapidly that it often has the feeling of childishness. It is easy, and perhaps rote, to call Von Trier smug, sadistic, pretentious, trollish and immoral – indeed, one imagines Von Trier's glee at such a judgment. I just never thought he'd be this uninspired.
VERDICT: A lifeless effort from a film-maker who didn't need a comeback vehicle.
RATING: One and a half stars.
ALSO IN CINEMAS:
Dir. Jordan Peele; Starring Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke; R16
Follow-ups to first film mega-hits are always tough, as all eyes await what new effort a fledgling film-maker will offer up to match their last. For Jordan Peele, whose Get Out was a bona fide cultural phenomenon, the answer is to swing for the fences. Us, a mysterious doppelganger chiller about a well-to-do black family that are confronted by their mirror images while on a beach holiday, is just as meticulously crafted, frightening and frequently hilarious as his last effort, albeit on a far grander scale. Peele is clearly enjoying the bigger sandbox he's got to play in this time around, and the film features a genuinely astonishing performance from Lupita Nyong'o in a dual role. The film's internal construction is designed to provoke discussion – with as many questions left hanging in the air as those answered – and the lack of a clear-cut social message seems destined to frustrate some people. And yet, the ambiguities of Us provoke thrilling, haunting feelings upon closer inspection. What if we are, in fact, our own worst enemies?
RATING: Four stars.