The House that Jack Built is a provocative, original, morbidly funny, and often
brilliant film about a serial killer played surprisingly well by Matt Dillon.
With his ordinary Joe good looks and his history of doing teen films, Dillon is
perfect for playing this type of quasi likable sociopath next door role.
The House That Jack Built was on Cahiers du Cinéma list of the best films of
2018 (it did not play Chicago until January), but American critical reaction has
been mixed to say the least. The film has also inspired an unusual amount of
The film can be seen as either one of the goriest art films (and I saw the
version that was cut to get an R), or the most intelligent ever slasher film. It
reminded me a bit of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer because the film makes
you identify with the protagonist up to a point until he commits the next
horrific or despicable act.
When the director’s cut of the film was shown at the Cannes Film Festival it
completely polarized the audience. Half of the audience left during the film and
the other half stayed all the way through and gave it a standing ovation.
The film was directed by Lars Von Trier who often has often dealt with the theme
of suffering women in his films (although in the last part of the film many men
are also killed and the killer is more of misanthrope than a misogynist). Von
Trier was clearly influenced by an even greater Danish director, Carl Dreyer.
Dreyer’s film The Passion of Joan of Arc is mandatory film viewing for anyone
who cares about film.
Lars Von Trier, the director is a very controversial figure who seems to
deliberately try to shock people. He was banned from the Cannes Film Festival
for a long time for saying he admired Hitler (he later said that he meant that
he understood him). He also once said that he thinks a motion picture should be
“like a stone in your shoe. “
But he is not merely the Marilyn Manson of cinema. There is more to Von Trier’s
work than shock value and he has talent to spare. Very few film makers can mesh
documentary techniques better into a fictional narrative or violate the rules of
film chronology as well (he can do this at least as well as Tarantino.)
Von Trier created a whole string of twisted masterpieces including Breaking the
Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, The Boss of Us All, The Five Obstructions,
Melancholia (which made my best sci fi film list on this website), Antichrist,
and the inventive horror hospital TV show, The Kingdom. Very few film makers
have produced such a long resume of daringly brilliant films.
The House that Jack Built is split up into chapters like a literary text. In
fact there is a bit of similarity between this film and Dante’s Inferno. In the
Dante text, the protagonist Dante is journeying through hell, and he is
constantly confiding in his tour guide, Virgil. In this film the killer, Jack is
navigating his psychological landscape and memories while talking to his
conscience/guide Verge (mouthed by Bruno Ganz who has a great voice). One
crucial difference is that Dante was journeying through hell in the epic poem,
but in most of the film Jack is headed toward the inferno.
Except for the beginning and ending, most of the film takes place as a prolonged
flashback, and Jack tells the whole story to Verge. Jack reminisces over his
supreme artistic achievements- the five murderous incidents he orchestrated in
the last 12 years.
Jack is obsessed with architecture, literature, the classical music, visual art,
cinematic violence and concentration camps and he often brings them up in his
discussions of his murders. He intellectualizes the killings and his own
depravity in order to justify them in a similar way that that Lars Von Trier has
justified the brutality of his films. In a way the whole film can be seen as a
self-critique which reminded me of how Vertigo served as a self-critique of
Von Trier channels his artistic side into his killing and he seems to think of
his attempts to orchestrate the perfect murder as following in the footsteps of
composer, Glen Gould conducting a perfect performance or a great architect
making a beautiful house. Too bad he did not poetry. Actually one of the figures
Jack idolizes in the film is the Romantic poet, William Blake, and Jack
extensively discusses Blake’s theory of art when he is not mutilating or
Jack says early on that he is trying to achieve a “the kind of bloody frenzy an
ermine experiences in a hen house.” Although he is speaking figuratively his
cruelty extends to animals. In an early sequence he graphically maims a young
duck then we see real black and white footage of Glen Gould playing at the
piano. Evidently in some twisted way he feels that when he is committing his
perfectionist crimes he is following in the footsteps of a music master.
There is some weird comedy sequences in the film that are humorous in a macabre
way. When Jack experiences a peak of excitement over nearly completing a
multiple murder he has to stop and go shopping because he was given the wrong
bullets and cannot complete the crime. It is almost like he was prevented from
climaxing during intercourse.
One of the most disturbing sequences involves the very tragic story of a
disturbed young woman (played by Elvis Presley’s talented grandchild Riley
Keough). Jack mistreats her terribly then offers her sympathy and for a few
minutes he seems to actually care about her, but inevitably his uncontrollable
impulses take over and he dispatches her in an extremely graphic and revolting
manner (this was one of the scenes that was trimmed in the R version.)
But let’s face it most people are not going to want to see a grisly/funny
psychological horror film that is over 150 minutes long, but if you have a
strong stomach it is worth the effort. Although it is somewhere in between
Fellini’s 8 1/2 (which also takes place in a mindscape) and Texas Chainsaw
Massacre it will probably displease most fans of those two films.
Although this is not Von Trier’s most consistent or ground breaking film, The
House that Jack Built is still smarter and more thought provoking than 90
percent of what passes for cinema (don’t even get me started on my Oscar picks.)
The House that Jack Built only played three times in a Chicago theatre, but is
currently streaming on Amazon and I-Tunes.