Movie ReviewsThe House That Jack Built – A Bloody Divisive Masterpiece

Keith NoakesDecember 16, 2018

This house was built with bodies … a lot of bodies.

Synopsis: Boundary-pushing cinematic visionary Lars von Trier returns with one of his most daring, masterfully provocative works yet. In five audacious episodes, failed architect and arch-sociopath Jack recounts the elaborately orchestrated murders—each, as he views them, a towering work of art—that define his “career” as a serial killer. Mixing pitch black humor, transcendent surrealism, and renegade musings on everything from history to architecture to cinema, von Trier fashions a radical, blazingly personal inquiry into violence, art, and the twin acts of creation and destruction. (IFC Films)

Starring: Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, and Uma Thurman

Writer: Lars von Trier

Director: Lars von Trier

Rating: 18A (Canada)/R (United States)

Running Time: 152mins


Suffice it to say that this film has faced its fair share of controversy ever since its premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival because of its use of extremely graphic violence in its telling of a story from the perspective of a serial killer. This film definitely does not shy away in its depiction of violence (which kind of makes sense in a film about a serial killer). The film is available as an unrated director’s cut and an 18A/R edited version (I watched the 18A/R version) but despite that, it will still be a drawback for most viewers which is understandable. The few who are willing to look past all the violence will be treated to a engaging character study.

The film is obviously about an engineer named Jack (Dillon) who also happens to be a serial killer. Recounting his many murderous exploits with an off-screen man named Verge (Ganz), we witness Jack commit a series of escalatingly elaborate murders and coming into his own along the way through a series of vignettes known as incidents. Juxtaposed with him trying to find himself was Jack’s compulsion to build the perfect house. Both subplots had plenty in common as Jack committed murder as a way to create the perfect piece of art while he struggled to find the right materials to build his perfect dream house.

Jack’s conversations with Verge led to some interesting insights into his complex psyche. Being a serial killer, he was clearly not a nice person. Despite this, he was somehow still compelling to watch and even empathize with him and his many faults. Though he may be endearing, you still don’t necessarily want him to succeed. To try and explain Jack’s rationale, the film would try to go deep and root them within such themes as history, materialism, identity, popular culture, and the meaning of life, using plenty of archival footage along the way. However, the end will surely lose some viewers as it may be a little too surrealistic as the film tried to wrap everything all together.

The film is also on the long side, clocking in at 2.5 hours, but the length is barely noticeable. The subject matter may not be the most beautiful, however, the film itself was. The cinematography was beautifully shot, staying up close and personal with Jack while he did some pretty brutal and despicable things. From the set design to the art direction, Jack’s world was very cold and lifeless while also beautifully macabre. The film as a whole perhaps pushes the art aspect a little too much, adding to the running time, but that’s a minor complaint. Plus, you’ll never look at David Bowie’s Fame the same way again.

Ultimately, the film would not have worked if not for Dillon’s amazing performance as Jack. A film about a serial killer is definitely a great undertaking for any viewer but Dillon was so compelling to watch that it was easy to overlook his actions. His performance as a psychopathic serial killer with OCD showed a considerable range, touching his many quirks in a deeply nuanced way. He would be both incredibly charming and incredibly menacing at times. His commitment to remaining stoic throughout was commendable and it also helped with his delivery of the film’s often hilarious dark comedy.

Overall, this was an amazing dark comedy whose subject matter will most definitely not be for everybody. Its graphic violence and its arguably incessant messaging will certainly turn most viewers off but for those who can look past it, they will be treated to a beautiful film that was both compelling to watch (which seems like a contradiction) and that will challenge them unlike most others films on political correctness and the true meaning of art while holding a mirror to society. Common sense dictates that you shouldn’t laugh with or even care about a serial killer, however, this film made it hard not to. What probably shouldn’t have worked on paper does thanks to career-best lead performance by Matt Dillon.

Score: 10/10

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