Review: The House That Jack Built Is A Character Study Sans Morality

As often as writer-director Lars von Trier has made films about despicable people, there has almost always existed a kind of twisted morality about each of them that made even their worst actions go down a little easier. I promise you this is not the case with his latest work, the serial killer epic The House that Jack Built, which profiles five different killings at the hands (and other weapons) of Jack (Matt Dillon, in rare form), a methodical, thoughtful murderer with a grand design and purposeful, horrific logic.

House the Jack Built

Image courtesy of IFC Films

Let me be clear: saying that this Jack has no morality is not a criticism of the film; it’s simply a fact. It’s almost as if Von Trier has found the remaining redemptive feature of his more recent works and decided to strip that away as well, like he’s testing our resolve and dedication to see what he’s gone in store. He fully expects you to be repulsed and probably walk out of/turn off this movie. But if you have the stomach to make it until the trippy, nightmarish final act, there’s an attempt at digging into the serial killer mental condition that is unlike anything I’ve seen before. I’m not saying it works entirely, but it is endlessly fascinating and highly indulgent.

At this point, it should be mentioned that the version of the film that I saw a couple weeks back is the director’s cut, and that the version hitting screens presently is the theatrical version, which still carries the warning that it features “strong disturbing violence/sadistic behavior, grisly images, language, and nudity.” For those who regularly attend R-rated horror fare, the warning may seem a bit excessive, with the exception of a sequence featuring a victim known as Simple (played by the always daring Riley Keough). I’m not sure how much of the version of this scene that I saw made it to the theatrical cut, but it’s pretty terrible, as much for the way Jack talks to her as it is for how she dies. My point is, I don’t know the specific differences between the two cuts, and I don’t plan on finding out.

With the entire film set in 1970s America, the opening sequence/killing sets the perfect tone as Jack stumbles upon a woman (Uma Thurman) stranded with a flat tire and a sense of entitlement, asking more and more of her would-be white knight whom she insists drive her to the nearest auto body shop and then back to her car. The implication is almost that he might not have killed her if she hadn’t been so demanding, and the sequence plays out like the darkest, cruelest of comedies, until the blood starts spraying. Jack sees his killings as works of art, in terms of the way he gets his victims to trust him just before he lashes out, all the way through to the meticulous cleanup process. Watching Dillon maneuver through each scenario is captivating and perhaps too self aware for its own good, but it’s impossible not to watch. He’s analyzing the people, his own motivations, and the final product of his actions, typified by an elaborate killing machine and “house” that he’s constructing in a freezer that I’m not even going to attempt to describe.

In the moments where the film falls short, it’s not usually because the visuals are too extreme or graphic; it’s more because Von Trier isn’t making his point clearly or convincingly. He’s adding layers to a character who may not deserve them, and Jack’s frequent narrative conversations with a largely unseen character named Verge (Bruno Ganz) are interesting at times, but more often they amount to mid-level tedium.

The five primary killings are meant to represent the building blocks of Jack’s serial killer life and the foundation of his warped “house,” and whether The House that Jack Built works for some may strictly depend on how indulgent one is feeling on the particular day you see the movie. For some, the film may feel like the worst type of endurance test, but I got through the film mostly unscathed and liking a great deal of how Von Trier approached his subject, even if he weaves wildly off course at times. If the film didn’t feature such violent and sadistic moments, most people would simply file it away as a mid-tier effort from the filmmaker and move on. But Von Trier would never let you file him away, and so he pushes and pushes and waits to see if the viewer pushes back as a mean of engagement, or just pushes away and moves on. I may not always love what Von Trier produces, but I love that he is always producing.

The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre for three shows only: January 11-13, at 10:30pm each night.

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