Karyn Kusama’s DESTROYER Starts Weird, Finishes Strong

It seems like those Nicole Kidman set photos from Karyn Kusama’s stark LA crime noir Destroyer had been around for years, before the film itself was granted an uber-limited theatrical release and quickly pushed aside at the end of 2018. Kidman, looking haggard and sallow and baked to a crisp by the unforgiving SoCal sun, plays Erin Bell, a detective in the City of Angels whose troubled past has left her a husk of a human. But Kidman’s look is so off putting, so uncanny, that it’s all there is to the first act of the picture. The story that unfolds is a distant second early on, but fortunately the second half settles in to a rather riveting – if deathly serious – Point Break riff.

Destroyer jumps back and forth in time as we follow Bell from a fresh-faced cop infiltrating a sadistic LA gang with her partner, Chris (Sebastian Stan), to this strange, warped, broken woman in the “present day” thread. Current day Erin drinks, drifts around town, and has quite a problem on her hands with a rebellious teenage daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) whose new boyfriend is up to no good. The setup of all these elements stumble out of the film while we adjust to Kidman’s look.

Comparisons were made to Charlize Theron’s transformation in Monster, but there is something more naturalistic about Theron’s sun-poisoned serial killer; it’s difficult to pin down, what is so distracting about Kidman’s appearance, but there’s no getting around it early on while you try, frustratingly, to put pieces in place. Kusama has a specific vision of this Los Angeles, sharp concrete angles and open spaces, heat, death, not a single shot of ocean water to be seen. She is going for a mood, you can see it, but the story isn’t cooperating through the first hour.

The second half of Destroyer pivots to something altogether more engaging and exciting, once you’re able to adjust to Kidman’s appearance (mileage may vary from viewer to viewer). The flashbacks to Erin’s undercover sting, her relationship with Chris, and the eventual disaster that ruined her life almost two decades prior  are able to punch up the plot, and a tense bank robbery sequence shows Kusama’s abilities to handle action well. There is a minor twist, some reveals along the way, and plenty of terrific camerawork as the film draws to a more satisfying close than what could have ever been predicted in the beginning.

Despite the look, Nicole Kidman is giving everything to her role here. It’s been an incredible few years for the Aussie legend, and Destroyer is another daring move from an actress who seems to be settling into an incredible second act. This is also a film almost entirely about Kidman’s Erin Bell, so much so that the supporting players practically don’t register as characters sometimes. They are all fine, and don’t distract, but in the end they all feel like ciphers put in place to tell Erin’s story.

Destroyer is a half-misstep for Kusama, whose last film, The Invitation, was one of the best of 2015 (and Jennifer’s Body is thankfully getting the cultural reappraisal it deserves). It’s tough to fault her direction, which shines in the second half; the fault is more in the meandering opening act and DOA delivery of these first few scenes than anything Kusama tries. Again, though, it all comes down to Kidman, who is able to fight through a strange makeup decision to turn the film into something worth seeing.

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DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE is a Cold Rush of Nasty and Subversive Noir

There is no time to spare once the curtain opens on Dragged Across Concrete, S. Craig Zahler’s latest gritty genre opus, his most intentionally provocative yet, slyly, his most subversive. It’s a challenging, prickly, heavy mood piece soaked in shadow and light, and it jumps right into the seedy underworld of these lost souls. Every frame seems pulled from the dog-eared pages of an underground crime comic, written in blood-soaked prose and carefully placed in position by a master craftsman looking to elicit emotion.

It also has Mel Gibson, in one of his best performances this century.

Just the inclusion of Mel Gibson, now with a face carved out of stone, is enough to ruffle some delicate feathers out there. But as Brett Ridgeman, an openly racist and soured detective who has lost sight of what, if anything, ever made him a functioning human being, Gibson embodies what so many in the media and across the country already think he is on a daily basis. Ridgeman is out of touch, jaded by his police work, and is no longer able to tuck away his hatred for the “neighborhood” in which he lives and works. His real opinions are often less subtle than this description. If the consensus is that Gibson is this person (whether that’s true or not), then Zahler casting him in the role should be free of criticism, considering the character he plays here; this is what a certain facet of cultural opinion makers want Mel Gibson to be in their head, and now here he is, being that person on the big screen. How can they be upset?

Ridgeman is paired with Anthony Lurasetti, a younger, more amused detective played by Vince Vaughn, who clearly has fun delivering Zahler’s rope-a-dope noir prose. When a rough arrest is captured on camera (“not that bad,” according to their superior, Calvert, played briefly by Don Johnson), the two men are suspended six weeks without pay, placing them both in a bind for different reasons that should be left unsaid here. Regardless, Ridgeman cooks up a plan to acquire some wealth, and the trajectory of their story eventually brings them to that of Henry Johns.

Played by Tory Kittles, Henry Johns is a man who’s been to prison, been reformed, and is ready to escape the dire situation he lives in with his drug addict prostitute mother and wheelchair-bound nephew. But it requires, yes, the acquisition of wealth. Kittles’ work is on par with the two stars, so much so that he should be the one who most benefits from this hard-nosed performance.

Dragged Across Concrete is, at 159 minutes, essentially two movies with a short film – one involving a loving mother, played by fellow Brawl in Cell Block 99 actor Jennifer Carpenter in a role that would earn her a Supporting Actress nomination in a fair and just world – sandwiched in between. The first half is primarily stakeout scenes with Gibson and Vaughn, which will test the patience of many viewers, but those patient enough will be rewarded with smart dialogue and some humor with teeth. Zahler manages to keep all of the loose scenes and unwieldy dialogue focused, despite the fact that nothing you are seeing should be working. After his previous two films, Brawl and the terrific Western/Horror hybrid Bone Tomahawk, Zahler began getting labeled as a right-wing filmmaker – whatever that means. It was a category he was placed in, so whatever. Dragged Across Concrete will certainly stoke the fires of journalists and film fans who care more about the political ideologies at stake, or the mere existence of these words Zahler’s characters speak and the ideologies they carry with them, and less about what the director is doing within these very obvious conventions.

There is a forest made up of all these trees, and Zahler has pushed the envelope even further here in terms of pacing and plotting and conversation. It may not be as violent as the previous two, but Dragged still has its moments of grindhouse catharsis tucked away in its epic run time to satisfy genre fans. In the end, he subverts everything we’ve thought about the very existence of these characters within the framework of this movie. This is a look at the poisoned rotting core of an apple. To be offended is to show your hand, that you’ve only paid attention to the areas of the film you want to, and not the entire story as a whole. It’s provocative, but with purpose beyond shock value. That’s partly why the movie is so long, or why it’s length is so crucial; it’s a challenge. Zahler is asking you to stick it out with him, and you will be rewarded; bail after a few tough words or a few uncomfortable moments, and you’ll never get the full picture.

The Academy Awards are Dying From Self-Inflicted Wounds

For the past few months, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been slowly killing its Oscar telecast. It’s been death by a thousand cuts: a host controversy has plagued the entire season; the inclusion of milquetoast crowdpleasers as legitimate contenders also seem particularly egregious in a year where there has been wonderful diversity in storytelling. And then, there was the bizarre choice to not invite last year’s acting winners out to announce the winners in this year’s race.

That nonsensical decision was met with enough pushback that the Academy acquiesced and said “lol kidding, all four actors will be there to announce the winners.” If that mild annoyance drew enough public ire to make the Academy change their mind, perhaps their latest embarrassment won’t last long, because the outrage is now over legitimately baffling and gross decisions.

In order to shorten the program, allegedly, the telecast will not be airing the winner of the following four categories: cinematography, editing, makeup/hairstyling, live-action short. Let’s consider for a moment that the Academy did this to try and shorten the telecast, which is a stupid waste of time that anyone who actually cares about the program and the history of the Oscars have never complained about. They’re chasing a crowd who doesn’t care about their product, but let’s just assume, for this first rant, that this is the real reason these specific four categories were removed from the telecast.

Makeup and hairstyling are crucial to the art of moviemaking, the art that president John Bailey claims to want to celebrate in the telecast, despite removing categories. Not airing the live-action short winner is especially cynical, given the fact that whomever wins in this category may never return to the Oscars the rest of their life. It’s their moment, and now it will be handled during commercial breaks.

Removing cinematography and editing from the telecast, however, is unforgivable. It’s the final pair of nails in the coffin of this year’s show, which has been a complete trash fire for months. When I first read this news, I couldn’t quite put my finger on the reason why removing these two specific categories was so disgusting and idiotic. Then I read this, and it clicked:

This explains it clearly and succinctly, so there’s no reason to explain it further. Cinematography and editing are movies, so clearly this telecast is no longer about celebrating the craft of cinema, it’s about selling advertising and hitting a time window and, oh yeah, it’s about Disney’s control over ABC.

If these four categories seem like a weird collection of categories to take off the air, don’t worry, there is a totally cynical and even more disgusting reason they’re being axed: there’s not one Disney movie nominated in any of these four categories. Disney owns ABC. Again, the dots aren’t that difficult to connect, and those dots put together an ugly picture that is enough for me to turn my back on the entire process.

I first started watching The Oscars closely in the spring of 1991, having just turned ten. Obviously I hadn’t watched Goodfellas, but I had seen and loved Dances With Wolves (and still do) and I wanted to see how it did. From that year on, I was by the television every spring, for good movies or bad, and I stuck with it through thick and thin and four-and-a-half hour unwieldy behemoths with awkward moments and controversy and upsets and excitement. I learned about the history of the movies and the craft of the movies, I can name any Best Picture winner from 1968 to the present, and for years I explained to curious friends the difference between cinematography and art direction. If there is any person in this country who could claim a long-standing love and admiration for everything the Oscars stood for, it was yours truly.

Now that I’ve spent enough time needlessly qualifying myself, let me just say I don’t care to see this disastrous debacle unfold. It’s disheartening. There are plenty of ways to shorten the telecast that don’t involve turning the program into a three-hour Disney advertisement , but why the hell do you have to change it at all? It’s one night, it’s celebrating an entire year of movies and a slate of films that’s expanding faster than cells can duplicate, and it should be a party where all the bits and pieces that put together these beautiful works are universally celebrated. Let it go five hours. Who gives a shit? This feels cynical and tacky and gross, and John Bailey and the Academy should be truly embarrassed today.

Its’ unlikely that they’re embarrassed, however, because they don’t really care in the end. I didn’t really care if Kevin Hart was there – and I’m glad he isn’t because he isn’t funny and we all need to acknowledge this. Having no host seems like the product of a time when just about anyone can be labeled “problematic” enough to cause a stir. It’s an odd feeling to not have a host, but it’s manageable enough to get around with a few surprise appearances during the broadcast.

The nominees themselves, well, they need some work, but there is a logical reason why they would want to include popular box-office hits in the mix. Not inviting last year’s acting winners back felt like a shot in the dark that was quickly reversed, but who knows if this latest, most damning mistake, will get corrected. But now, despite my newfound resistance to being emotionally attached to such frivolous things, this latest news felt honestly, personally, hurtful. It’s an attack on a medium to which I have dedicated years upon years of my life; it’s a firm, uncaring slap in the face.

Stop tinkering with a product that has a niche audience, because you’re losing that niche audience and the “mainstream” crowd you’re trying to lure in won’t backfill those spaces. Perhaps terrible ratings will allow a true regime change in the Academy, not this window-dressing diversity quota we got a few years ago. The only thing fans of the Oscars can hope for is that this telecast is not only a disaster but, more importantly, a big money loser for ABC and Disney, so much so that they sell off the rights, or get someone to run the place who appreciates what the Academy Awards stand for.

Play to your fans and you will find the success you so desire, but it feels too late to learn that lesson.

 

WIDOWS is a Rare, Engaging Thriller for Adults

Widows is the rarest of major studio films, a strictly adult-oriented thriller with very little in the way of pomp and circumstance, directed by Steve McQueen with attention to performance over plot. It’s a showcase for an incredible, and incredibly deep, roster of acting greatness. While it may not carry that intensity all the way through to the flat conclusion, the means to which we reach this end are worth the time.

Based on a British miniseries from the mid ’80s, Widows begins with a heist gone horribly awry on the streets of Chicago. The four thieves – led by Liam Neeson’s Harry – are killed in a fiery shootout, and the money they stole disintegrates right along with them. The missing money belongs to a wannabe city councilman Jamal Manning (Atlanta‘s Brian Tyree Henry) and his murderous brother, Jatemme, played by Daniel Kaluuya with brilliant, eerie menace. The Manning’s need the money, and have transferred the debt over to the wives of the dead thieves, namely Veronica, Harry’s widow.

Viola Davis plays Veronica, and flashes every ounce of that recognizable Viola Davis intensity in moments big and small. Veronica has no friends, she owns nothing in the home she shared with Harry, and tragedy has followed her lately. She is shut off from the rest of the world, but she kicks into gear when her life is threatened. This means bringing in two of the other widows to help her steal five million dollars: the aloof Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), and the world-weary Linda (Michelle Rodriguez).

The machinations of the heist the women need to plan takes a backseat to some tremendous character building through the meat of the picture. Aside from the situation these women find themselves in, a subplot involving a smarmy politician (and Jamal Manning’s competition) named Jack Mulligan – played by Colin Farrell, who can so easily slip into this role – and his racist father, played by Robert Duvall, expands the breadth of McQueen’s film. While the tension of the necessary heist builds, and Kaluuya’s murderous Jatemme closes in, McQueen takes the time to show us the corruption of city politics. In one extended, unbroken shot, he gives us a glimpse in the disparity between city officials and the constituents for which they claim to work, simply by mounting a camera on the hood of a car.

Despite the sprawl of McQueen’s story – which clearly feels at times like an abbreviated mini series – Widows never loses focus, and the actors are all fully engaged to a point where their dedication to the story is palpable. Viola Davis does her thing, but there are great performances big and small all over the screen.

There are twists and turns along the way, but the ending fizzles when it should pop. That isn’t as detrimental to the overall experience, however, as McQueen crafts an endlessly engaging and compelling story surrounding characters we care about in a film where characters are so often thrown into heist films to move the plot forward. Widows is unique these days as a thriller aimed strictly at adults; for that alone, it should be praised.

 

 

THE STANDOFF AT SPARROW CREEK is a Focused Thriller That Demands Your Attention

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek could be compared to Quentin Tarantino’s breakout 1992 hit, Reservoir Dogs. The setup is similar: dangerous men are brought together in the wake of a crime – in this case, a mass shooting at a public event that should remain unnamed – each one suspecting the other of being the guilty party, and nobody willing to give an inch. Beyond basic comparisons, however, director Henry Dunham’s film (which he also wrote) is decidedly its own thing, a daringly minimalist thriller that spends 90 minutes tightening its grip.

There’s no release in The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, no catharsis, there is only screw-tightening tension between an impressive collection of character actors, all working with laser focus and never showing us too much. This story is as real as it gets. It respects and challenges the audience’s ability to pay attention and read between the lines, and leaves you in moral knots as it dives into the motivations and potential madness of both Militia and police. Everyone is a suspect and anyone can be guilty, depending on the circumstances.

James Badge Dale is our entry into the story. He’s Gannon, a former cop who serves as a sort of clean storefront to the local Militia to which he belongs. Gannon lives an isolated existence in his motor home, and he’s sitting down to cut into a fresh deer steak when he hears the gunfire. It’s from an automatic weapon, far away, but not far enough. Gannon knows something has happened, and he knows authorities will set their sights on the nearest Militia.

Gannon arrives at a remote lumber yard where a handful of Militia members and potential suspects arrive in short time. The leader of the team is Ford, played with serious authority and flippant sarcasm by the great Chris Mulkey; Brian Geraghty, Patrick Fischler, Robert Aramayo, Gene Jones and Happy Anderson make up the rogue’s gallery, but the less you know about each of these characters going in, the more satisfying the collection of twists and turns will be. Rest assured that each and every participant is emotionally self-contained, dodgy, and absolutely perfect in playing in their appropriate key.

The mass shooting is the catalyst that kicks the film into gear, and as the catastrophe outside intensifies in surprising ways, we are let into the lives of each and every member of the group. All of them live a life of isolation, and the film attempts to try and exhume the demons that can fester inside a person who would find solace in something a paranoia-fueled Militia. Except Dunham’s screenplay does not demonize or mock these characters and their intelligence. They aren’t fools or rednecks, and they each have their reasons for being in this predicament. Dunham is attempting to understand the world these men inhabit with an honest approach to them as human beings, and the result is a film that breaks down any reluctance you may have towards its characters and locks you inside this lumber warehouse right along with them, digging for answers.

This is a dark film, often lit with harsh flashlights, or fluorescents, or a clicking, buzzing security light setup around the lumber yard perimeter, or a patrolmen’s wandering beam. We are given a glimpse inside a what feels like an authentic Militia, where a carefully-manicured arsenal and a warehouse full of survival gear is handled responsibly, that is, until one of the members snaps. These Militia men have radical views, and they prepare and protect their own, and they are isolated, but are the criminals? Typically, they aren’t criminals until they are, and that’s the confounding chasm where this story unfolds.

There are reveals in Sparrow Creek, and a substantial twist that lays everything you’ve just seen out on the table, open for discussion. Here is a film that exists in the greyest of areas, forcing the viewer to pick a side, neither of which are desirable. It’s a slow-burning moral puzzle that feels unsolvable in the end, and it’s the confident arrival of a strong new voice in Henry Dunham.

Resist the Hate: GLASS is a Terrific Dose of M. Night Shyamalan Indulgence

As the early reviews for Glass, M. Night Shyamalan’s much-anticipated third piece of his Philly superhero trilogy, began to trickle in, I was hit with a sinking feeling. I believed the reports, and bought into the claim that Shyamalan had gone off the rails again, and that Glass was a failure.

It always seemed like a possibility with this sort of ambitious project. Big ambition has gotten the better of the polarizing filmmaker over the years in some fascinatingly bizarre ways. Shyamalan typically shines when his films keep the focus small like Unbreakable and Split, the previous entries in this story, but Glass is something different. There are expectations to this world that didn’t exist until the final shot of Split last year. It made sense, sadly, that the early narrative around Glass was tepid to poor; Shyamalan had stubbed his toe again.

Fortunately, none of that narrative is true, at least it shouldn’t be true for any devotees of the wild and unwieldy rollercoaster that is the career of M. Night Shyamalan. Glass is big in ideas about people and superheroes and trauma and empathy, with a sumptuous visual palette that carries through every perfectly manicured scene. Every frame here could be pulled from the movie and put on the pages of a comic book.

Glass is also corny as hell, but it’s not ashamed to be. Shyamalan’s grasp on pop culture has always been suspect – his references don’t quite land the way someone like Tarantino’s do – and that’s the same here. But this is a comic book world, bathed in bright solid colors and fully committed to the story at hand, so the hokey dialogue, not to mention the effort Shyamalan puts into tying his cameos from the previous movies together, is all part of the charm. It’s surprising that anyone would expect anything different at this point.

As for the story, well, it’s as basic as the visuals are indulgent, but it allows Shyamalan to throw tremendous amounts of energy into rationalizing his own admiration for comics and his own beliefs about hero mythology through his three leads: James McAvoy, who plays the murderous Horde (a.k.a. 24 separate personalities), Bruce Willis as David Dunn, the hero of Unbreakable, who is now hunted by the law, and Samuel L. Jackson as the brittle, diabolical villain Mr. Glass. These characters are so fully realized, and the performances so endearing, that Shyamalan is able to meta-textually deconstruct comic books, while simultaneously creating a singular comic genre vision, and anyone willing enough to buy in will enjoy the ride.

The film is off and running early, buzzing with a nervous ticking-clock score and showcasing both Willis and McAvoy as their paths eventually diverge. The midsection is where the heavy exposition comes in, and it may lose some casual viewers, but the ominous tones and tense camera work add significant weight to whatever ostensible hypothesizing these characters are working out.

There’s no need for plot details; part of the fun of a Shyamalan film is seeing what sort of weird detours it will take. In fact, the setting is virtually inconsequential as the story progresses, merely a vehicle to combine the trio with a terrific supporting cast including a terrifically chilling Sarah Paulson, Spencer Treat Clark back as David’s son, Joseph, and Anya Taylor-Joy returning as Casey, the surviving victim of McAvoy’s spree at the end of Split. Casey’s arc in the story is particularly inspired for a small but crucial performance.

Willis and Jackson are fine in their roles, comfortable and serviceable, but the heavy lifting James McAvoy is doing here is spectacular. Every tick and switch from one person to the next is earned, and he is pulling this off dozens of times through the film. From his show-stopping physicality to his sincere embrace of Shyamalan’s words, McAvoy goes all in and puts on scenery-chewing clinic that belongs on the Mt. Rushmore of over-the-top performances.

The climactic showdown manages to be a commentary on everything Glass has been about up to that point, and yet it may alienate viewers who’ve been conditioned to expect certain things from their superhero movies over the years. There should be no expectation that Shyamalan was going to take the film down an expected path, and the decision to finish the story in this way, on that location, speaks volumes as to the type of specific story Shyamalan wants to tell.

I feel I can say with some certainty that Glass will be reevaluated in the public forum sooner rather than later. This almost always happens with Shyamalan’s films, and while I may not be the best judge of whether or not they’re good for everybody because I am a philistine who loves the Village, I know that this is the director absolutely nailing every one of his intentions with goofy jokes and heady ideas and style and thrills and excitement and suspense.

It’s a relief to see, at least through the fog of my undying support for the guy, that Shyamalan has not flown off the rails the way it’s being described. If you’ve learn to stop worrying and love The Shyamalan, Glass is right up your alley.

Scenes I Love: Percy Serenading Lydia in THE FISHER KING

Of all the wonderfully bizarre and idiosyncratic Terry Gilliam films we’ve gotten over the years, none have been accompanied by as much heart, as much earnestness, and as much expertly calibrated saccharine emotion as his 1991 urban fable, The Fisher King.

The film, written by Richard LaGravenese, was the first time Gilliam, a member of the legendary Monty Python troupe, didn’t direct something based on his own writing. The Fisher King is a grimy melodrama, an adventure, a deep dive into the poisonous fruits of fame, and the LaGravenese touch adds a layer of emotional depth that was never really a major tool in Gilliam’s bag.

Jack (Jeff Bridges) is an arrogant talk radio DJ who is absolutely lost inside his ever-expanding ego. His flippant dismissal – and subsequent stirring up – of a disturbed caller one night motivates said caller to walk into a nightclub with a shotgun and open fire. The tragedy sends Jack into a spiral of self hatred and depression, and into the arms of Anne (Mercedes Ruehl). One night after some heavy drinking, thoughts of suicide, and being mistaken for a homeless person by a gang of kids looking to literally burn away the city’s destitute, a self-proclaimed knight of the streets, Parry (Robin Williams), steps in and saves the day.

The connection between Jack and Parry is apparent early: Parry was an educated member of high society whose wife was murdered that night in the nightclub, and the tragedy fractured his mind. Now, he is a man on a quest to find the holy grail – on the upper west side, no less – while fending off the Red Knight, a manifestation of his trauma and his past life that drives him mad. Jack feels it’s his duty to help.

Not only does Jack help Parry with his seemingly fruitless quest, he also has an idea that will potentially help Parry get his life back in some sense of order. That involves Lydia, a bumbling loner who doesn’t really walk to work every day, so much as she is pushed along sidewalks and through train stations by a wave of indifferent humans who don’t even realize she’s there, like driftwood down a river. Parry realizes she’s there, however, and he is absolutely smitten, in love with every little crazy tick and pratfall. Jack, with the help of Anne, set up a date based on false pretenses involving a phony video rental contest, and a suit with plenty of staples along the hem line.

Lydia is strange, and guarded, but Parry can see through her aggressive exterior. The setup of the date is chaotic and buzzing with nervous energy; the dinner at a Chinese restaurant is awkward and clumsy, and Plummer is doing some marvelous physical work. And then, on a dime, it’s beautiful:

What begins as a terrific bit of improv and physical comedy, Williams’ strength as a comedian, Parry’s rendition of “Lydia” breaks all the energy and emotion of the scene down into one touching moment. The song captures the mood of the table, and for the slightest moment, Parry is normal again.

It’s a devastating moment, given what happens later that night when Parry’s psychosis manifests itself as the thunderous Red Knight. Despite the tragedy that follows in the wake of this dinner, it’s the turning point of the picture, where Jack realizes the feelings he has for Anne go beyond self-loathing, and where Parry and Lydia connect on another level.

It allows the end to happen the way it happens, and it’s a scene I absolutely love.

THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT is The Work of a Busy, Unsettled Mind

The House That Jack Built is a glimpse inside its creator’s busy and troubled brain.

Lars von Trier is arguably the most infamous provocateur in cinema; he’s certainly the most high-profile provocateur, a comically brash personality with an unsettled upbringing, who can somehow secure major talent for all of his whacked out stories of extreme psychosis and depravity. All of his films, in some form or another, are a look inside von Trier’s busy head, where memories of his mother’s deception, manic depression and alcoholism, his fascination with Nazis, and his early days directing hardcore porn all crash into one another and spill out in harsh examinations of tragedy (Antichrist), existentialism (Melancholia), and sex (the Nymphomaniac films).

It should be no surprise to anyone willing to watch The House That Jack Built that it is depraved and deeply disturbing in a few scenes. That’s what you’re getting when you push play on a von Trier joint. But this film is, more than any of his other films, Lars von Trier purging himself of all the shortcomings and failures he sees in his career and, ultimately, his life.

Jack, our nebbish, bottled-up serial killer with some serious OCD, is played by Matt Dillon. Dillon has been out of the spotlight for what feels like more than a decade, so it’s nice to see him in a substantial role he can sink his teeth in. And his knife blade. Dillon is in every scene, and gets the opportunity to play seemingly different characters throughout.

The film is broken up into five “incidents,” which is what Jack calls them when he’s telling his tale to a mysterious older voice in act breaks and tangents, sometimes accompanied with animation. The first incident is the one most have seen in clips, with Uma Thurman, but other victims include the terrific character actress Sioban Fallon Hogan, Danish star Sofie Gråbøl, and Riley Keough. The early scenes are violent, but fleeting and manageable, nothing too intense. But it’s all a setup. If you can make it past the shocking sequence at right about the halfway point, a stomach-churning scene involving a “family” and a hunting rifle, you might be able to hold on and make it through the harrowing second half. No warning here can be strong enough.

Jack gets more brazen and takes more risks as he continues killing and butchering his victims. He smashes in their faces, strangles them, shoots them, hits them with cars… all just to see if he can. He has a freezer where he keeps the bodies, and he treats each incident as a canvas for which he can paint his art. Every murder is photographed and manicured to look like something specific for Jack. This is all von Trier, commenting on his own tumultuous career as a provocateur, and he’s incredulous that it keeps going no matter what he tries.

Over his career, Lars von Trier has kept pushing the limit of what he will try in a film, and he keeps getting away with it. Each of these incidents is von Trier confessing something, like how he’s been cruel to women (which stems from his mother), or how his obsessions have ruined his personal relationships – and his family, as exemplified in the nightmare scene in the middle – and how he’s seemingly gotten away with producing these sorts of movies for three decades.

Time and time again, Jack is able to stammer himself into a woman’s home, to stumble out of suspicion with police, to move frozen bodies in and out of an apartment complex undetected. A fortuitous rain storm washes away a miles-long stream of blood and brain. He keeps getting away with it, so he keeps trying, getting stronger. All the while, Jack’s attempts at building a home are thwarted by his dissatisfaction and crippling OCD. It’s easy to see the metaphors spraying blood all over the screen, or visualized by a house that fails to come together because murderous obsession steals all of Jack’s time.

Like most of von Trier’s films, The House That Jack Built is a little bloated and a little cluttered, and it goes on far too long. It’s a metaphorical journey through hangups most people already knew about the filmmaker, but it’s still interesting to see how the creator sees his own creation and embraces his own psychological issues with a furious ego dump. Lars von Trier seems like the sort of person who will corner you at a party and tell you insane theories about the darkest corners of the human soul, and about Nazis and his mother and porn, beating you senseless with insufferable ramblings until you can fake a phone call or have someone stealthily rescue you from his clutches.

That doesn’t sound appealing, and The House That Jack Built is, like most of von Trier’s films, not a lot of fun. But it’s a it of morbid fascination to see what sort of insanity he can cook up from picture to picture, and there is no denying the immaculate craftsmanship on display. As long as he wants to keep trying to make these insane movies, and get terrific unfettered performances from greats like Matt Dillon, it’s worth a shot to see if you can push play and make it to the end.