About 10 minutes earlier than Matt Dillon whacks Uma Thurman throughout the face with a automobile jack in “The House That Jack Built,” I used to be fascinated by the final time I actually didn’t wish to see a film. And the winner was every of my afternoons spent with an installment of “The Human Centipede” torture trilogy. There’s one thing about understanding that you just’re minutes away from watching a psycho surgically conjoin a stranger’s face to a completely different stranger’s rump that makes you wish to be someplace else.
So it’s a form of reduction that, for as sick and violent and sadistic as Lars von Trier’s new movie is, “The House That Jack Built” fails to conjure something as diabolical and morally outrageous as nonconsensual head-to-heinie. His film is lacking the readability of imaginative and prescient to whip psychopathology into one thing rousingly mental. It fails to make depravity an expertise that both stimulates or appalls. If I needed to depart von Trier’s film, it wasn’t as a result of I used to be nauseated.
The whack Dillon provides Thurman within the opening minutes is the primary indication that we’re coping with a loon. It’s additionally the primary signal that we’re coping with a bore — in each Jack, the serial killer Dillon’s enjoying, and von Trier. The film arrives with a whiff of scandal. The rampant grisliness reportedly despatched folks on the Cannes Film Festival storming out the theater. But, at Cannes, that may be a badge of honor and additionally simply Day 6. The model we’re seeing is merely R-rated now, and is claimed to run shorter and due to this fact luxuriate much less within the nastiness. It’s very nasty nonetheless.
It’s also tedious, ponderous, obvious and humorless. The movie loosely follows a five-act structure in which Jack takes us to his walk-in fridge (piled high with bodies and frozen pizzas) and talks us through some of his greatest kills. They’re mostly of women. Thurman plays a ritzy dame whose car breaks down and asks Jack for help. Their drive to the mechanic occasions both a harangue and winking commentary. Does Jack know, she asks, that his vacant blood-red van makes him seem like a killer? Actually, he couldn’t be a killer, she reasons, because he’s a “wimp.” Lots of people die in this movie — and, metaphor alert, a breast even becomes a change purse — but Thurman’s delivery of that word might be the most murderous thing that happens.
We’re supposed to believe she’s goaded him into slaughtering her. We’re supposed to believe that most of these women — a mother (Sofie Grabol) of two sons, a sexy date (Riley Keough, giving it her all) — have asked for it by seeking or submitting to his help. The damsels bestir a dastard. I was too bored to reach that conclusion myself. All the credit goes to Verge, the mostly offscreen conscience (as in Virgil), whose voice belongs to Bruno Ganz and who gasses on with Jack about philosophy, morality and art. He asks Jack why the victims in his stories are so stupid? Does he hate women?
And it’s here, after lots of cutaways to old footage of Glenn Gould kneading a piano and montages of arguably apt paintings (a Picasso is superimposed upon Thurman’s battered face), that von Trier exposes himself as the true subject, like a cuckoo in a clock, like a flasher. It’s possible to read this movie as an X-ray of von Trier’s sense of persecution for his alleged treatment of actresses and the characters they’ve played — Emily Watson in “Breaking the Waves,” Björk in “Dancer in the Dark,” Nicole Kidman in “Dogville,” Bryce Dallas Howard in “Manderlay,” and Charlotte Gainsbourg in “Antichrist.” Has he come to hate himself?
But to some extent every von Trier movie is some kind of self-interrogating apologia. And his previous gaze into a psychological mirror, his two-part “Nymphomaniac” opus from 2014, covered some of the same territory as this new movie while also breaking some creative ground. It, too, was brutal but it was also alive. “The House That Jack Built” has a few memorable shots and a good, rudely abrupt ending, but is also sad and repetitive, riddled with what can only be called Dad jokes. How else do you describe the shots of Matt Dillon — who’s fully committed to the deadpan mania of this part, by the way — tossing cue cards like Bob Dylan?
Something feels off with von Trier’s sense of artistry now. Something feels stuck, like his head’s wound up lodged in his rear, which brings the movie closer to “The Human Centipede” than I would have thought. But this isn’t cinematic horror. It’s proctology.
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