Why Were People Walking Out Of This Movie About A Serial Killer?

Controversial filmmaker Lars Von Trier's "The House That Jack Built" has been described by one critic as "endless, agonized navel-gazing" and "often tediously unpleasant."

By Eric Shorey

When director Lars Von Trier's latest movie, "The House That Jack Built," debuted at Cannes Film Festival in May, both audiences and critics were thoroughly appalled. Early reviews of the film, which tells the fantastical story of a serial killer, were overwhelmingly negative. Some reviewers even questioned whether the movie could even be thought of as art. Considering how many films about serial killers have received critical claim, why is this particular one considered so disgusting?

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

Here's a quick synopsis: "The House That Jack Built" explores the inner life of the eponymous, fictional murderer played by Matt Dillon. Jack, who lives off a mysteriously unexplained inheritance, wantonly kills more than 60 individuals and stacks their rotting corpses in a freezer as he battles with obsessive impulses. Throughout the movie, Jack reveals that not only did his killings help free him from his pathological fixations, but that he essentially viewed the slayings as an artistic exploration of destruction. Scenes of extremely graphic violence (mostly against women, who are repeatedly described and portrayed as stupid and incompetent throughout the film) are intercut with classical paintings, montages of genocide and the Holocaust, and scenes from Von Trier's previous films. Jack is never captured by authorities, and the film ends with Jack discussing his various crimes with the ancient Roman poet Virgil as the two descend into Hell. The movie concludes with Jack's final arrival at the deepest pit of the underworld.

Lars Von Trier is no stranger to controversy. For example, the beloved avant-garde musician Bjork has spoken out about the hideous treatment she suffered while acting in his film "Dancer in the Dark" in 2000. Von Trier also came under heavy scrutiny for depicting the actual real-life killing of a donkey in the 2005 film "Manderlay." And more recently, at a press conference for the apocalyptic 2011 movie "Melancholia," Von Trier expressed a kinship with Adolf Hitler, leading to him getting banned from several prestigious film organizations.

With this in mind, it's not particularly surprising to find reviewers outright condemning this latest work.

New Yorker critic Richard Brody, for example, described the film derisively, saying that Von Trier "dallies with disgusting images and ideas in a carefully calibrated, ante-upping ploy to attract attention" and thoroughly recommended people not see the movie at all.

New York Times critic Wesley Morris compared "The House That Jack Built" to torture porn like "The Human Centipede."

"His movie is missing the clarity of vision to whip psychopathology into something rousingly intellectual. It fails to make depravity an experience that either stimulates or appalls. If I wanted to leave von Trier’s movie, it wasn’t because I was nauseous," wrote Morris.

The AV Club's A.A. Dowd was only slightly more generous: "One is left to wonder if the movie’s endless, agonized navel-gazing justifies the often tediously unpleasant experience of watching it," he wrote.

Indeed, the depictions of violence contrasted with the prolonged meditations on morality and art are difficult to sit through and made only more challenging by shaky, nauseating camerawork that perhaps purposefully induces motion sickness over the course of the film's painful 155-minute run time.

At the film's debut in Cannes, many outlets reported more than 100 walkouts.

"It's disgusting," one woman proclaimed loudly amongst a "steady stream" of angry people leaving the theater, according to Variety. Confusingly, despite the balcony being half-empty by the time the credits rolled, the film still received a "prolonged" standing ovation.

But at a preview screening at the IFC Center in New York City on Dec. 14, audience reaction was quite the opposite: The most common thing heard during the showing was uproarious laughter. It's unclear if the guffaws heard throughout the film were the result of nervousness, ironic detatchment, discomfort, or genuine comedy.

Dillon, who admitted that serial killers were "not something I was interested in," had perhaps encouraged that kind of response in a brief Q&A before the film. Describing the movie as a "dark comedy," Dillon discouraged people from leaving before the ending. He characterized the on-set experience as a "great time," related Von Trier's emotional connectedness to the protagonist, and made sure to emphasize that no animals were harmed during the making of the film despite one vignette that depicted a small child cutting a duckling's leg off with a pair of garden shears. (PETA has confirmed this detail and additionally praised Von Trier for the use of stock footage in scenes depicting animals.)

As far as the actual violence in the film, it's is a bit surprising how some have reacted. Certainly the historical shots of Nazi war crimes are very disturbing, as are the protagonist's killings. Yet, in terms of depictions of visceral gore, "The House That Jack Built" is far tamer than most of what is depicted in any of the "Saw" films or most contemporary horror movies. Much more obliquely gruesome films like "Silence of the Lambs" or celebrated Japanese movies like "Audition" have garnered largely positive critical consensuses and are often viewed as culturally important to film history, despite depicting fleshier atrocities. Was it the juxtaposition of these brutal scenes with pretentious ponderings on the artistic merits of murder that disturbed audiences so? Was it the inherent misogyny? Was it the history of Von Trier's controversies that led to such moral outrage? Was it the overtly fascist ideology at play?

It's unclear exactly how much carnage was cut from the final rated-R version currently showing in theaters. Business Insider indicates that one scene depicting Jack hunting a small child with a rifle was largely edited down. It's certainly possible that the director's cut was notably more hideous than what most audiences will end up seeing, and that's why the Cannes screening caused such an uproar.

Ultimately, unlike many of Von Trier's previous works, "The House That Jack Built" will likely not be remembered as an artistic masterpiece. Existing in a deeply nihilistic universe, the film's combination of totalitarian politics and its sadistic, bloodthirsty aesthetic will deservedly scare most away. But perhaps that's what Von Trier wanted all along.

[Photo: Matt Dillon (left) and Lars Von Trier (right) by Emma McIntyre / Getty Images]

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