Lars von Trier's doggedly outrageous, fearsomely ambitious two-hander is so desperate to make you feel something—if only a terrible sensation of nothingness—that it's almost poignant. Most simply put, Antichrist revels in the gruesome ordeal of a bereaved couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) who lose their toddler because they were too sexually engrossed to notice him climbing out the nursery window. Unsympathetic as they are, the unnamed protagonists offer little emotional guidance: He's a smugly rational psychotherapist; she's a researcher with an interest in the occult, driven mad by guilt and her husband's attempts at treatment. The pair retreat to the woodland cabin they call Eden, where, rather than finding solace, they wind up destroying each other. Although a chronic overreacher, von Trier has twice achieved greatness—first with The Idiots (1997) and then with Dogville (2005). Both movies are showy stunts that shrewdly address the assumptions of cinematic realness. Antichrist, which above all wants to make pain visceral, is less successful at projecting authentic experience. The filmmaker strains his enterprise past the breaking point with grotesque torture and two types of castration, shown as money shots in mega-close-up. The shock tactics are ultimately numbing.
Dafoe has some unusual ideas about loss and therapy.
Opens at Egyptian, Fri., Oct. 30. Not rated. 109 minutes.