Muscular and mythical, tiresome and nauseating.
You never forget your first, they say. Lars von Trier entered my life in a storm of intrigue in 2012, upon hearing disturbed musings around a film called Antichrist. After rather naively seeking it out, life hasn’t been quite the same since seeing Charlotte Gainsbourg masturbating an unconscious Willem Dafoe to the point of bloody ejaculation. But that’s just another day in a Von Trier joint. His latest experiment in (in)humanity places the most naturally villainous-looking man in the game, Matt Dillon, in a complex, cold-hearted, fascinating study of a serial killer finessing his craft to the point of brutal cockiness, amidst mythological malarkey.
Jack (Dillon) is an engineer – who’s really an architect – bedevilled by OCD and unsociable quirks. Enigmatic rabble about being allowed to “speak along the way” opens the hell, but the crux of it, in the simplest terms, is this; the film examines Jack’s humble beginnings from amateur, natural murderer to fully-fledged obsessive expert through five “incidents over 12 years” he believes define his work as an artist, spliced with soporific segments of faceless dialogue (with Bruno Ganz) regarding a painfully obvious destination.
“Oops, that was a mistake… you could be a serial killer.” Of all the things you’d say, even in jest, to the stranger who has offered to take you to a garage after your car breaks down, this ain’t it. Uma Thurman’s nameless termagant is one the more despicably hideous characters on screen this year (as such it’s quite well performed). No matter how upstanding your morality is, her forthcoming death is a delicious payoff. The cathartic relief starts here, but Von Trier’s dialogue is indisputably contrived in this moment, manipulated not arisen. This is a trait of his penmanship that reappears; female figures are written thinly as inept pawns in the fantasy (perhaps intentional given the story).
Jack the sociopath says himself that he compares his handiwork to that of “great art… sublime work hidden in cathedrals”. Dillon’s performance as such is an indictment of toxic male hubris, and is a landmark turn – he only grows in sadistic confidence, a truly devilish, ugly persona emerging from heinous character work. Very hard to imagine anyone else in the role that could balance unsettling charm and blood-curdling blankness. In one standout, cheekily subversive moment, a girl realises she’s about to be killed by the so-called, Mr. Sophistication, and Jack says: “If you feel like screaming, I definitely think that you should.”
Von Trier isn’t the first person to paint an unwavering display of evil; you could argue this is a more fantastical follow-up to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. But where this work goes further is both graphically and spiritually. The several incidents vary in their grotesqueness (the hunting trip is horrific), but the most memorably devastating is quick; a young Jack swoops a baby chick out of the water, and cuts its leg off (no matter how much you tell yourself, this moment doesn’t feel like just a movie). When the credits roll you may shrug off some of what you’ve seen, but that scene is likely to leave you with a sporadic ache.
There’s an intriguing conflict of directorial styles in play; when Jack is in the comfort of his home, with pencils and paper in perfect alignment on tables and books organised on shelves within a millimetre of harmony, the camera hangs steady and smooth, with a recurring classical tune sounding the mood. But as he primes for and carries out a kill, there’s a tinge of fly-on-the-wall, restless observation, often with David Bowie’s punky classic ‘Fame’ playing as a sort of ballad for chasing infamy, or perhaps unattainable self-gratification. There’s no score, only these selected pieces of music that pop up every now and again, quite effectively.
Looking past the stomach-churning ultraviolence, there’s a macabre comedy underneath, scenes playing out with a foul, droll wit. Ganz says to his blood-thirsty compadre: “A murderer with OCD? That’s almost ridiculous.” But Von Trier plays with this concept in a majorly satisfying manor; a prolonged incident shows Jack trying to enter a home, pulling off a laborious strangulation, and leaving. But as he sits in his car, he’s plagued with worry over spots of blood (in literally the most impossible areas) he’s missed when cleaning up. You’re really invited into the cogs of his pestering mental state, adding more depth to the process.
As is generally case with a Von Trier outing, the film falls victim to several self-inflicted collapses as a result of his inescapable quirks. Insipid tangents play far too large a role in the onerous runtime, their relevance feeling increasingly fragile, overly indulgent and stubborn. This carries into a fairly dazzling but eye-rolling finale, where the metaphors that could have been more subtly affecting are thrown to the high-heavens. But there’s something freakishly and undeniably enjoyable about it all; Von Trier clearly made the experience he imagined, and Dillon is on career-best form.
Disgusting and cathartic in the way only Von Trier can allow without a criminal conviction.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm