The House That Jack Built - Review

Never another Trump.


*Editor’s note: This review will cover the unrated director’s cut of The House That Jack Built.

For a film that is at once a serial killer drama, an examination of art from a psychopath's perspective, and a meditation on Hell, The House That Jack Built plays like a single sentence. It opens with muted, echoing dialogue between Jack (Matt Dillon) and some unnamed voice (Bruno Ganz), as Jack converses in a tone reflecting the audience. He tells us how he will organize his story, and to what capacity his actions are capable. In five parts plus an epilogue, Lars von Trier combines his greatest strengths as a filmmaker, along with a demented performance from Matt Dillon that deserves more than praise than it will receive, into a film that’s senseless brutality is matched only by its artistic prowess.

Much of The House That Jack Built does not need to be described. It is a film lover’s work, taking cues from the French New Wave von Trier has made his specialty, and always challenging with new camera movements and genre additions. Animated sequences and documentary-like filmmaking explain the philosophy of the film, but the main story is relayed from deep inside Jack, a functioning psychopath who claims to have killed sixty one people. His conversation with the unknown person, referred to as Verge, keeps his story from spiraling into all out glorification, an area Quentin Tarantino walks dangerously close to. We have seen murder, police, and serial killers done well before, but as this is a von Trier film, the plot is nothing to the message. Jack’s introduction is marred in confrontation, as he pulls over to assist a woman (Uma Thurman) who has broken her car jack. She is rash and offensive, contradicting her suburban appearance and physical demeanor, and quickly accuses Jack of being a serial killer. Lars is anything but subtle with this introduction, reaching out with a megaphone to tell us what he has created. What follows is the development of a voice so strangely enticing, it overshadows the taboo events of the film.

Much of the runtime is spent exploring Jack’s mind, and the things that have brought him to where he is when we meet him. Traditional flashback, gorgeous still photography, and old film footage are all used to paint a picture of Jack’s psyche, which makes this a psychoanalytical serial killer story, much like Hannibal (NBC). The difference is that Jack is performing this analysis on himself, with only a meek voice in Verge to question or contradict him. These sequences of mental dissection explain what Jack believes he is doing with his killings, as well as communicate one of the central themes of The House That Jack Built, destruction as an act of creation.

Throughout the film there are images of demolition, rebirth, and thoughtless mutilation. Much of this goes unexplained, in von Trier’s style of showing the result, but rarely the cause. Jack murders a family of two boys and a mother, initially in the disguise of a hunter. He teaches the boys to shoot, and impresses the mother with a gentle touch for children. Cut, and he is shooting at them from a crow’s nest. We don’t see when or why things changed, only that they have. Jack’s murder of the family represents his desire to create something out of his killing, or rather, to make a masterpiece out of many great works. The house that he eventually builds is exactly that; a culmination of all the work he has done, art in his eyes, fastened together to create something magnificent. The house is both his escape and his damnation, as he realizes by the end of the journey that it has led him to Hell. That is where his art leads him, not by his own choice, but out of necessity to escape the law that threatens to limit his abilities. It’s important that he not realize he is in Hell. It takes an explanation from Verge to help him understand that those he has been modeling himself after are villains, evil and detestable creatures bound to Hell for all eternity, showing how ignorant he is to the ramifications of his actions. His mind is fixed on an end, and he will do anything to reach it, even if it means choosing this ignorance. Sound like someone you know?

Throughout, Matt Dillon’s expression remains unchanged. As in most von Trier films, the acting is incredible, and it is worth noting that this is the first male lead he has cast since 2009’s Antichrist. The film was inspired by the 2016 election of Donald Trump, and the similarities between he and Jack are evident. Jack is misogynistic, all powerful, and unaware of the effect his actions have on others, or else entirely unsympathetic to them. The red hats the family and Jack don bare a resemblance to Trump’s own merchandise, drawing the connection even darker. The Nazi and Soviet governments the film references used red to dominate and showcase, and the rare but powerful use of the color in The House That Jack Built is equally intimidating. It is no coincidence that the hats are the same color as Trump’s, or that Jack wears a red cloak for the final part of the film. Lars von Trier had a message for the audience before the unrated screening: Never another Trump.


What makes the violence in The House That Jack Built so startling is that it is unfiltered. Jack is not so different than other serial killers, but the ways in which he tracks or prepares his victims are unlike anything else. Uma Thurman’s character is doomed from the start, but when the killing blow strikes, it feels insignificant, until von Trier cuts to it several times in quick succession. Jack’s mutilation of a girlfriend is difficult to watch not for what we know is coming, but for how he uses his time: verbal manipulation, emotional abuse, and a hilarious cry for help become the first apparent moments of message over plot. The girlfriend’s plea is greeted by silence, deafening silence, as described by Jack, and when he looks out the window to see if anyone will come to her aid, he delivers one of the most poignant lines of the film, “Nobody wants to help!”. His confidence is persuasive, and while the film takes place before 2018 (no dates are given), the parallel to modern America is too vital to ignore. Jack is made famous by his murders, often soundtracked to David Bowie’s “Fame”, and allowed to persist in them by some divine luck. The great rain that saves him from capture, the hole in the bottom of his house that allows escape from police; he is not the most brilliant killer, but he is certainly the most fortunate. His study in negative photography reveals a duality, in the way a negative reflects the darkness in the brightest light. When the last shot comes and “Hit the Road Jack” starts to play, the film has made its point on where Jack ends up.

The idea of a film that covers unnecessary subject matter like child murder and praise for the Nazi and Soviet governments would be preposterous without a theme; Von Trier even uses footage from his own films to explain Jack’s worldview, a fourth-wall breaking experience I won’t soon forget. Von Trier’s films have always had a message or goal, but The House That Jack Built is his first that feels immediate to this time. It’s his vision of America, detractors, and the senseless brutality of silence the world has fallen prey to during its most dangerous time. He doesn’t need to create a world ending event to react to, we are living in the middle of one; he simply makes the person who fits in it.