Jack (Matt Dillon) has a lot of explaining to do, and his new companion Verge (Bruno Ganz) is all ears as he starts with the first person he murdered on his journey to being one of the most prolific serial killers in American history. She was a lady (Uma Thurman) he met on the forest road near where he lived, her car had a flat tyre and she needed a jack to fix it, but he admitted he didn't have one so she persuaded him to give her a lift to the local blacksmith he recommended. On the way, she proceeded to kid with him and insult him, darkening his mood, so that when they got back to her car and the jack broke again, he was really growing angry, as this woman was about to discover...
The House That Jack Built was writer and director Lars von Trier's first film in half a decade, after suffering high profile problems with his sense of humour that led many to believe he was an Adolf Hitler apologist. He wasn't, but he did not express himself very well when the subject came up in a press conference and his well-known struggles with depression appeared to have caught up with him in that they gave him a self-flagellating streak that went hand in hand in getting others to do the flagellating for him. This self-destructiveness had previously exhibited itself in his provocative films, making his work real love it or hate it material, but evidently there came a time when enough was enough.
This return to the spotlight was given, shall we say, a mixed reception when he returned to Cannes, some offering a standing ovation, others walking out in disgust - presumably the sort of polarisation von Trier was after. But by this stage, he was only playing to the gallery of his most dedicated fans, and while they lapped this up as a masterpiece, for pretty much everyone else they could quite happily resist the dubious allure of a two-and-a-half-hours plus serial killer horror mixing graphic violence with artful musings on the nature of evil in the most intellectual terms. Well, intellectual for a von Trier movie, as there was always the strong suspicion he was pulling our collective legs throughout.
Dillon, to his credit, was aware of precisely what was required of him, and did not serve up too bad a performance as you take against the surly Jack almost immediately, even when the director is inviting us to be annoyed at Thurman's passenger character, who turns out to have a point when she judges the killer to be a nasty piece of work, but not when she thinks he would be too much of a wimp to be a murderer. That he proves her wrong was either Von Trier putting on his misogynist act once again for effect, or a petulant bit of writing aimed at telling us, or more specifically women, not to provoke men by undercutting masculinity. Judging from the sense of humour on display elsewhere, however petty even if it did not make you laugh there was a degree of self-awareness in its creator's provocation.
Yes, The House That Jack Built was offputtingly gruesome in places, including as it did such anecdotes as its antihero taking a mother (Sofie Gråbøl) and her two young sons out for a hunting picnic only to turn the rifle on his three guests, or a date at Riley Keough's house that ends with him daring the world to stop him cutting off her breasts, and the temptation was to let von Trier just sink into his mire of depression and not bother with encouraging any further expressions of it after witnessing sequences like those. And yet, he was a talented man, and his mental illness had brought him to a situation where he would depict atrocities (in archive clips as well as his own concoctions) and demand to know how humanity can live with itself knowing we have been capable of such unimaginable cruelties. The answer to this is, not everyone is capable of that, and we who are not are here to see that the corrupted do as little harm as possible. Lars may have been corrupted by his torment, but filmmaking you would hope gave him a channel for his bleakest ruminations: there is catharsis in horror movies, after all.
Notoriously eccentric Danish writer, director and producer, a graduate of the Danish Film School, who has capitalised on international acclaim and disdain in equal measure. Thrillers Forbrydelsens Element and Epidemic started the ball rolling, with distinctive war drama Europa really setting von Trier up as a talent to watch.
Breaking the Waves, the first in a series of victim stories, won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and his fame spread, especially as he had teamed up with three other directors to create the Dogme '95 rules of filmmaking - controversial The Idiots was von Trier's result. Then Dancer in the Dark, a musical starring Bjork, proving he was anything but predictable, and Dogville, a scabrous attack on American small town life.
He was next involved in The Five Obstructions, a documentary which revealed much about his methods. Then, a thematic follow-up to Dogville, slavery drama Manderlay, which was followed by little seen comedy The Boss of It All and most controversially, his relationship goes to hell horror Antichrist.