Whatever your feelings on director Lars von Trier, you have to hand him this: He is never, ever boring.
And you will have feelings on von Trier after watching “The House That Jack Built,” a 2½-hour-long middle finger raised in defiance to critics and detractors. You want offensive? He seems to ask. I’ll give you offensive.
Think von Trier delights in torturing his female characters? Enjoy this shot of Uma Thurman’s face getting smashed to pulp with a car jack.
Have an issue with von Trier treating his actors like livestock? Here’s a strangled corpse being delicately posed for the killer’s camera.
Remember that time von Trier got banned from the Cannes Film Festival for saying something stupid about Nazi Germany? How about we shoot some children dead from a watchtower.
Von Trier (“Dancer in the Dark,” “Melancholia,” “Nymphomaniac”) is as unabashed a provocateur as ever, and that would be annoying if he weren’t such a damn fine filmmaker, too. “The House That Jack Built” is more than just an epic piece of cinematic trolling; it’s von Trier taking a microscope to his creative process in all its obsessive ugliness, creating a sophisticated meta-commentary on his art and daring the audience not to be entertained by his extreme indulgence in all the predilections for which he’s been roundly criticized.
That a film this abrasive works at all owes a major credit to Matt Dillon’s mesmerizing performance as Jack, aka Mr. Sophistication, a brilliant engineer, would-be architect and unhinged serial killer whose walk-in freezer is rapidly filling with corpses.
Serial killers are always sport for game actors, but Dillon really leans into the madness. One moment he’s vivisecting prey, the he’s next practicing facial expressions in the mirror to better convey human emotions, always with a wry, mocking undercurrent of disgust for humanity. It’s a powerhouse performance that demands admiration for craft even as it repulses. (Sound familiar?)
The film is broken into five “incidents” over a 12-year period, each a uniquely grisly murder that one-ups the horrors that preceded it. Throughout the film, Jack is engaged, in voiceover, in a sprawling conversation with an ethereal being named Verge (Bruno Ganz).
As the horrors of Jack’s life play out on screen, the two ruminate on the nature of art, on the merits and limitations of destruction and love — lofty philosophical concepts that are parsed while blood splatters across the screen. It’s not just Jack having this conversation with Verge, it’s von Trier having this conversation with us.
This might not seem an endeavor capable of elegance. But as anyone who has suffered von Trier’s “Antichrist” (2009) knows, the Danish filmmaker has a gift for marrying horror with grace. In its final act, “Jack” takes a turn for the visually and existentially stunning, making literal the film’s long journey into hell. It makes for some of the year’s most indelible cinematic imagery.
When Cannes finally welcomed von Trier back earlier this year, there were reports of outrage and audience members walking out in disgust when confronted with “Jack.” That’s understandable. It’s a film that requires a twisted sense of humor and an iron stomach to even tolerate, never mind enjoy.
But to dismiss “Jack” out of hand in offense is not just to miss von Trier’s point, but to prove it.
‘The House That Jack Built’
IFC Films presents a film written and directed by Lars von Trier. Rated R (for strong disturbing violence/sadistic behavior, grisly images, language, and nudity). Running time: 152 minutes. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.