Time: 155 Minutes
Age Rating: Graphic violence, sadistic cruelty and sexual violence
Matt Dillon as Jack
Bruno Ganz as Verge
Uma Thurman as Lady 1
Siobhan Fallon Hogan as Claire Miller – Lady 2
Sofie Gråbøl as Lady 3
Riley Keough as Jacqueline – “Simple”
Jeremy Davies as Al
Director: Lars von Trier
In five episodes, failed architect and vicious sociopath Jack (Matt Dillon) recounts his elaborately orchestrated murders — each, as he views them, a towering work of art that defines his life’s work as a serial killer in the Pacific Northwest.
Having watched Lars von Trier’s past few films (Nymphomaniac, Melancholia and Antichrist) recently, I had been meaning to check out The House that Jack Built. It’s yet another controversial film from the polarising director, with his next movie following a serial killer. With the movies I’ve seen by him, I can usually appreciate and like them, but there’s something about them which I couldn’t bring myself to love or get on board fully with. The House that Jack Built however managed to be the exception to the rule and really was a real surprise of a film. Entertaining, fascinating, full with ideas and led by a fantastic performance by Matt Dillon, The House that Jack Built is one of the best films of the year.
The House that Jack Built is 2 hours and a half and when it comes to watching this movie, you have to really be prepared to sit yourself down to watch all of it. It’s divided into 5 ‘incidents’ as well as an epilogue and is basically a dive into the mind of a serial killer. The incidents all sounds very repetitive on paper, even with Jack finding new ways to kill his victims, however they do make sure that each of these killings have their own significance to Jack. It’s pretty clear that these aren’t the only murders that he has committed, it’s just the 5 instances that he decides to talk to a voice named Verge (Bruno Ganz) about. Speaking of that, the movie isn’t just about killing, a big part of the movie is Jack narrating talking with Verge, while some of their discussions are about his actions, their discussions can also range to art, icons in history, architecture and plenty of other things as well. Like with some bits of the discussions in Nymphomaniac, it can be a little too self indulgent at times but most of the conversations were interesting to listen to. There’s even a moment when they’re talking about art and it shows on screen some of Lars von Trier’s own movies. There is a real self-awareness to this movie which I think benefited it, and that’s possibly why I enjoy watching this one more than his others, Lars seemed to be genuinely having a good time making this movie and you could feel it. I think something that will surprise everyone is the effective dark comedy that is used. For example, the first two incidents are mostly hilarious. An example is in one of the incidents where Jack has murdered someone and is trying to leave a crime scene but because of his OCD keeps thinking that there’s still blood left behind and keeps having to go back inside the house to clean up the non-existent blood, even when the police can be heard coming closer. The movie is not a laugh riot from beginning to end though, there are some particularly grim moments, incidents 3 and 4 stand out as being that. Now the movie has an epilogue that is so far removed from the rest of the movie. It could polarise some but I personally loved it, it worked to tie together the whole story and the ending was really the only way the movie would’ve ended. Side note but I think a large part of watching the movie is that it’s probably Lars von Trier reflecting on himself and his work, he even said that out of all the characters that he wrote, Jack is the closest to himself. Going into the movie knowing that made things more interesting but I’m sure you could watch the movie perfectly fine not knowing too much about the reviled director.
Matt Dillon gives one of the best performances of the entire year as Jack. Whether The House that Jack Built would work as a movie relied on a number of things (it could’ve easily turned out to be a disaster), and one of the most critical things was the performance of the titular Jack character. I haven’t seen Dillon in much outside of Crash but he did a fantastic job here. He is great at showing Jack’s development over the 12 years, especially how he starts off not being that great as a killer, and then him becoming much more unstable, experienced and more willing to take risks as the film progresses. He also showed great range, going from being awkward and hilarious and intimidating in the next. The supporting cast which includes Riley Keough and Uma Thurman were all pretty good, though usually just limited to one scene appearances. The standout supporting actor was Bruno Ganz who voices Verge, who Jack speaks to. I didn’t mention this before but I feel like Verge was essential to this movie working, as during the narration portions when they are talking, they conflict and debate a lot. Without Verge, we would just be watching Jack discuss his killings and talking about his perception about art without being challenged at all. The film needed some sort of moral centre and it certainly wasn’t going to be Jack’s victims who get like 10 minutes of screentime max. On top of that, Verge calls out Jack for a bunch of things, whether that be his misogyny, arrogance or his ego. Because of this, I highly disagree with all the criticisms of this movie glorifying serial killers or being misogynistic, the movie is pretty much condemning Jack throughout.
Lars von Trier’s direction is great and had a really good look to it. His previous movies do this but they have that weird unnecessary cutting in scenes, I’m used to it by now though but I can see other people finding it rather distracting. Overall though the editing really helped and added to the movie. The third act is vastly different from the rest of the movie, and without spoiling anything has some stunning visuals, it truly is a spectacle to watch. I pretty much loved everything they did with the movie. Now to deal with the elephant in the room: the violence. I heard much of the scenes of violence before going in. With the violence, they go the more realistic route rather than the bloodbath approach, I’d say that less blood was seen here than in American Psycho (to compare it to another serial killer movie). I know it’s a weird thing to say but honestly I found the violence to be way tamer than I thought it would be (not to say that most people will be perfectly fine with the violence in this movie). I’d say honestly its more about what exactly happens that’s disturbing than how it’s portrayed. That’s not to say however that there aren’t scenes that aren’t hard to watch (again primarily in incidents 3 and 4), but they are careful not to be too gratioutous with what happens. For example there’s a moment when Jack can be seen cutting off a body part (at least in the director’s cut) and it only lasts for like one second, and that was one of the more graphic moments of the film. There are two versions of the movie, the director’s cut and the theatrical cut, I managed to watch the director’s cut. I have a feeling there’s a slight difference regarding the violence, with some cuts to slightly tone it down a bit. However, if you’re really questioning which version to watch, I don’t think it would be a major difference honestly (I still think the director’s cut is the way to go). I will say this though, if you could stomach von Trier’s Antichrist, then I don’t think you will have too much of a problem with this film.
The House that Jack Built won’t be for everyone, along with the violence and the fact that it’s about a serial killer, it is quite an ‘arty’ movie and has a lot more going on with it. People just expecting a simple serial killer movie will be let down. To me, it’s one of the best films of the year. Along with its great direction, its darkly hilarious, fantastically made and features one of the year’s best performances by Matt Dillon. I have a feeling that this is von Trier’s last film, given some of the things that happen in the movie as well as the ending, if that’s the case then he’s ending on a high note.