Edgelord Terrible Lars von Trier presents his most artlessly baited trap with The House that Jack Built, a meandering rumination on “art”, American history, senseless murder and himself.
The film follows Jack (Matt Dillon), an architectural engineer and serial killer in voiceover conversation with a man named Virg (it’s Virgil, played by Bruno Ganz) as he describes his career of killing women and children (he kills men too but like the film itself all but admits, women dying makes for better viewing).
The film is episodic and loosely that, drifting limply from one violent set piece to another, intercut crassly with stock footage of Glenn Gould playing Bach or Nazi Concentration camps. Trier is by now utterly and confidently self-aware in his desire to inflame moral outrage and insult every decent principle and I am doing my utmost neither to rise to his baiting nor descend to his level. Sadly, this film is the one thing that his other films, even at their worst weren't, it's dumb. It's clumsy, puerile, insensitive and heavy-handed. Only on rare occasion does it prickle some interest when it stumbles on a pithy line or neatly observed bit of commentary, I was unsettled by how real I found Jack’s OCD anxiety in a scene where he repeatedly returns to a murder scene to check it’s clean, even though he can hear incoming sirens. The film brushes past sharp themes about American exceptionalism, that von Trier handled better in the excellent Dogville, and it neatly articulates much of what is wrong with itself and its own approach. He seems all too aware that he isn’t doing anything valuable here, but neither is he doing anything entertaining, the writing is mostly dreadful, without his usual firm grasp of theme or voice. There is a good movie in here somewhere, but it’s ruthlessly and wilfully undercut by its own relentless edginess and revolting black comedy. Two set pieces, in particular, involving Riley Keough and Sofie Grabøl are entirely contemptible and Von Trier knows very well that they are. I lost a lot of respect for those two performers for agreeing to shoot those scenes.
It's not an entirely bankrupt film but in spite of that, it spends an inordinate amount of its excessive run time working hard to convince you that it is. I don't hate Lars von Trier as much as he may want me to, there are flashes of brilliance in even his most heinous work, this is evidence of that, but he just will not refrain from this childish trolling behaviour that just makes everyone look bad. His cast deserve better, his audience deserves better, his critics deserve better and he can do better.