When The House That Jack Built screened at the festival, reviews were mixed and walkouts were innumerable, but those who stayed gave it a standing ovation. The film tells the story of a serial killer, Jack (Matt Dillon), and the murders – of women, predominantly – that shaped his adult life. To give a balanced assessment of such a divisive film, Culture Whisper sent a male critic and a female critic to see for themselves.
Gender won't necessarily prove an automatic alignment with one side or the other for every viewer, but you will at least have both arguments before devoting 155 minutes to a film that, according to its maker, 'celebrates the idea that life is evil and soulless'.
The House That Jack Built brings the mind of Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier back to the big screen
Like Monty Python at their darkest ★★★★★ Euan Franklin
The most shocking thing about The House that Jack Built is how funny it is. It’s horrible and gruesome and nauseating to a level that only a veteran punk filmmaker like Lars von Trier is brave enough to achieve – sleep is difficult in the hours after it’s finished, and the imagery sometimes flashes back like a phantom scratch. But, given the circus of grotesque filmmaking, it’s still hilarious.
Washington-based serial killer Jack (Matt Dillon), also known by his stage name ‘Mr Sophistication’, recounts five ‘incidents’ over 12 years of savage murder. He speaks to his hallucinatory friend Verge (Bruno Ganz) about his life, his motivations, his morals, and his ‘art’. He’s an engineer, but really wants to be an architect. He’s an artist without skill. Unable to create art in buildings, as he tries to do with his own house, he finds it in murder.
As with everything associated with von Trier, controversy was quick to bite. And there’s plenty to be sickened by: with copious amounts of detailed blood and torture, it makes for an excruciating watch.
A dead body is nothing more than a colour on Jack's canvas
But it’s necessary. The worst serial killers are horrific people, and often movies have to give them empathy to expand their characters. Not Jack. Jack has no feeling for others, his backstory and those of his victims are suppressed because he simply doesn’t care. His early memories don’t reach far beyond amputating a duck’s foot and describing the land mowers of his childhood with Tolstoy-esque detail.
But this is where much of the humour comes in. The film is an injection into Jack’s head, his world is a dark realm of nihilistic pointlessness where a dead body is nothing more than a colour on his canvas. Once this fear over murder is removed, it’s funny to watch him struggle in committing an atrocity. In the second incident, he pretends to be a police officer with disastrous results. After he kills his victim, his OCD forces him to return to the scene of the crime several times. This feels like Monty Python at their darkest.
The House That Jack Built looks like a film that von Trier’s been building towards for his entire career – even including a montage of images from his oeuvre like Antichrist and Melancholia in a tangential monologue (Jack makes plenty of those) about icons. Everything culminates in a horrifically surreal final act, where Jack burrows away from reality with Dantean direction, one frame evoking Théodore Géricault’s famous painting The Raft of the Medusa. Like David Lynch for Mulholland Drive and Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey, von Trier throws everything he has into these last 30 minutes, plunging into the darkest crevices of the most anxious nightmare – one that’s hard to wake up from.
Matt Dillon burrows away from reality in The House That Jack Built
An unnecessarily remorseless execution ★★★★★ Ella Kemp
Violence is everywhere, and evil flows in and out of our lives – whether it’s deserved has little to no impact. Lars von Trier knows this, and he builds the foundations of his film as a mirror to the world he sees. Punishment doesn’t always guarantee redemption, and if it looked like the director was on the road to damnation in 2011, he's now found hell and is inviting everyone inside.
Jack (Matt Dillon) is talking to Verge (Bruno Ganz) – who could be anyone from a friend, to a doctor or a heavenly spirit above. It doesn’t sound like an apology or a confession. Jack is telling the story of the murders that allowed his career to shift, from engineer to serial killer, in a way that satisfies his mind and hones his skills like nothing else could. They discuss the power of art, the morals of life, the definition of an icon. They’re the ones speaking, narrating a vacant screen at first, but both voices just sound like von Trier.
The director makes Jack seem like an Action Man, always playing with the people he kills. Most victims are women, or rather 'ladies', as they're officially named: there’s Lady 1 (Uma Thurman), Lady 2 (Siobhan Fallon Hogan), Lady 3 (Sofie Gråbøl), and then there’s Simple (Riley Keough). You’re told that Jack is highly intelligent, but the film shows incomplete developments. Poor, gimmicky scripting and weak psychology discredit the never-ending perversion believed to characterise human existence. Jack is self-aware and self-critical, but his obsession stems from insecurity and prevents him from changing the world, for better or worse.
The character is given many epithets – architect, engineer, OCD-sufferer, serial killer – but none have enough meat to make sense, instead frustrating a narrative that is already so indulgent. It feels astonishing that anyone is left alive to think these things up.
Riley Keough is the one Lady with a name – Simple
‘Men are born guilty’, Jack tells Verge, in a brief explanatory pause in the most traumatic moment of the film, pinpointing what exactly it is that makes the film so repulsive. Whenever there’s a cause to complain, von Trier beats you to it. A pattern becomes clear, after three Ladies have each been afforded a single tear and a grisly end.
By this point, women have been knocked out for ‘goddamn blabbering’, killed for the sake of curiosity, and hunted like a panting wild animal after eating a slab of bloodstained fruit pie. This is a director who is more aware than intelligent, more cruel than cool. The belligerence makes it impossible to celebrate any kind of fictional sadism, and it's all the more troubling when you look around the cinema and everyone is cackling.
Bloody corpses lie on 'shitty' pizzas in Jack’s killing cave (a walk-in freezer), where layers of frost are creeping in. The place crystallizes the pulp of Jack’s mess, finding some kind of beauty in his inhumane affliction. The offence lies not in the subject matter, which has fascinated filmmakers for years, but in the unnecessarily remorseless execution. Turn to the work of Yorgos Lanthimos – a man who tortures his characters and squeezes a laugh out of those who peer in at them – or wrestle with the mind of David Fincher, dissecting the impenetrable operation of serial killers in Se7en, Zodiac and Mindhunter. Seeing evil isn't the problem; but the pornographic treatment of women, only ever treated as pawns, is inescapably harmful.
The rating of a single star attached to this review is vital, as it represents the stimulating discussion the film can offer from vehement parties anywhere on the spectrum, and it celebrates the qualities of the dedicated, talented actors mentioned above.
But if von Trier is right and we’re already living in hell, why should anyone else get the privilege of f***ing with the thermostat?
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14 Dec 18 – 14 Dec 19, 12:00 AM
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