Is this relentlessly vicious film a satire on humans' capacity for evil, an examination of psychopathy, or a senseless dive into depravity? Probably all of the above. Celebrated auteur Lars von Trier's cinematic skill can't be denied. Pretty much every film he makes is masterfully executed: His scripts, cinematography, casting, editing, and use of music, as well as the performances he elicits are usually very good. Sometimes great. But his fascinations can lead to places most people wouldn't care to go. Perhaps some of that is artistic courage. Perhaps some is morbid obsession. Whatever the engine, the ride is likely more enjoyable for the driver than the passengers. Von Trier's Nymphomaniac Vol. I & II, for instance, were hard-core sex at its most joyless.
What audience The House That Jack Built might have beyond an extraordinarily narrow, bloodthirsty niche is hard to say. It's a long (152-minute) parade of savagery. And that's the theatrical version; there's also a director's cut, for those who just can't get enough of graphic, close-up murders. If nothing else, von Trier seems to be enjoying himself -- though it's somewhat upsetting to think about what it means that he could make such a barbaric film that seems almost mischievous. The director even refers to himself in Jack, throwing in clips from his previous films as evidence of human malevolence. He also seems to revel in Jack's sadism, especially toward women. It's probably significant that, though Jack also kills men, it's the women we see tortured and brutalized on-screen. Jack and Verge ramble on about Jack's detachment and ambitions, offering descriptions of his behavior that will ring a bell with readers of Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test, but they never really delve into him as a person with an origin story. The film is very well made, with solid performances and occasional humor (as when Jack incompetently talks his way into a future victim's house), but it's likely to make most viewers sorry they entered the theater.