The House That Jack Built – movie review

Eccentric Danish auteur Lars Von Trier makes controversial and deliberately confronting films. His latest is likely to be divisive as well. Despite the title, The House That Jack Built is not a family-friendly fairy tale. Rather this is Von Trier’s portrait of a sadistic serial killer. But the film isn’t as illuminating nor as insightful as 1986’s Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer or Fritz Lang’s classic M.

This confronting film follows a serial killer on a 12-year killing spree. It unfolds in five episodes that shaped his notoriety. Jack (played by a game Matt Dillon) is the killer, an architect who’s creating his grotesque masterpiece using bodies he’s stored in an industrial freezer. He coldly kills men, women and children, and there’s particularly nasty edge to each of his killings. We get an idea of the in-your-face level of violence and intensity from the outset when we first see Jack bludgeon an unnamed woman (Uma Thurman) to death using a tyre wrench – a brutal act that is repeated several times with close-ups of the damaged face. Jack shoots, stabs and strangles his victims, and each death becomes more detailed and elaborate. He becomes more creative in his approach as he builds towards his perverted opus. Von Trier seems to depict each one with a disturbingly fetishist-like verite style approach, and he seems to revel in the violence.

Jack justifies his actions in a series of voice-over discussions with his mentor Verge (the late Bruno Ganz). He acts as his sort of moral compass but who is also largely unseen for much of the movie. Jack philosophises about the link between art and violence, and the emptiness of modern art. He talks at length about the impact of Hitler and Stalin on humanity. But these philosophical musings probably say more about Von Trier’s world view than anything else.

Von Trier’s regular editors Jacob Secher Schulsinger (Nymphomaniac) and Molly Marlene Stensgaard (Dancer in the Dark) incorporate footage of a young Glenn Gould pounding away at his piano with a rapid-fire montage of paintings, architecture, newsreel footage of 20th Century atrocities and even scenes from the director’s own body of work. Von Trier’s direction is uncompromising, with some extremely graphic violence. And at 150 minutes this soon becomes tiresome and tedious.

As with most of his films, Von Trier shoots The House That Jack Built digitally, with lots of hand held camera that moves in and out of focus. Regular cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro uses a vaguely different colour palette to separate time frames. He often works in close-up to depict the killings, and creates some grotesque and unforgettable images. Von Trier’s constant use of David Bowie’s “Fame” establishes a certain mood, and reinforces the idea that Jack desperately seeks acclaim for his actions.

The film features a fearless and committed performance from Dillon, who is cast against type here as the cold psychopath. His performance is good, and he manages to convey the charismatic Jack’s maniacal mindset, his narcissistic nature and amoral character. He even captures his touches of OCD. He is a thoroughly unlikeable character and he has few redeeming features. He seems to be channelling notorious serial killers, both real and fictional, from Ted Bundy through to Hannibal Lecter. Some of his victims are portrayed by Von Trier regular Siobhan Fallon Hogan (Dogville), Sofie Grabol (The Killing) and Riley Keogh (Elvis’ granddaughter).

The ending of the film goes completely crazy though as Jack follows Verge into the inner circles of hell in a scene that seems to reference Dante’s Inferno. The House That Jack Built is a visually ugly, thematically vile and morally repugnant film. It’s almost as if the director has deliberately set out to push buttons and provoke an extreme reaction. One to avoid – unless you’re a fan of Von Trier.

Director: Lars Von Trier
Cast: Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Uma Thurman
Release Date: 14 March 2019 (limited)
Rating: R18+

Greg King

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