Danish director Lars Von Trier is no stranger to controversy. He has certainly divided film fans with some praising his work and some condemning it. The House That Jack Built is his most recent creation, causing audience members at Cannes to either walk out in disgust or stand up and applaud. This seriously mixed reception caught my interest and I wanted to find out what he’d done to generate such a response.
I’ve only seen two of his previous films; Antichrist and Melancholia, the former being a film that disturbed me so much I haven’t been able to watch it a second time. Its visceral, raw and harrowing portrayal of sex, violence, and self-mutilation is something that is a thoroughly uncomfortable and unpleasant watch. Because of Antichrist, I felt nervous yet strangely excited to see what The House That Jack Built had in store for me. I was surprised, however, to discover that it is arguably his tamest film to date, with a lot of the more graphic content happening off-screen. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its disturbing moments, but it was a lot less visceral than I was expecting based on its recent backlash.
The film is split into five chapters labelled ‘The Incidents’ and an epilogue, detailing some of the murders that Jack carried out over a 12-year span. Two of these incidents include child abuse and female mutilation, but is presented in a much more psychologically disturbing way rather than uncomfortable close-ups and drawn out scenes that you watch from behind your hands. The House That Jack Built spends more time tapping into Jack’s own psyche than it does the atrocities he commits, with Matt Dillon really stealing the show as the titular character.
It’s also darkly funny in places, which I certainly wasn’t expecting. Dillon’s portrayal of a psychotic killer with OCD is both terrifying and amusing. He is simultaneously charming and unhinged, which is a difficult thing to pull off. He was by far my favourite thing about the film, reminiscent of so many iconic serial killers that have fascinated the general public. The film relied heavily on Jack’s character and inner thoughts so it was great to see Dillon pull it off so brilliantly.
Much like Von Trier’s previous work, The House That Jack Built features lots of symbolism throughout the narrative. In this case, it focuses heavily on religion, art and family, with Jack being challenged on all of these as he recounts the incidents. The voice challenging him is a mystery to us until the third act, where Bruno Ganz’s character is finally revealed to us. I found this reveal to be a little jarring and strange, but not unexpected from one of his films. For me, the third act is where it started to go downhill and I lost interest, which is a real shame after the strength of the first two. Despite seeing some really great analyses online, it wasn’t enough to change my own views on the way it ended. It just seemed a little too out of place for my liking.
The visual style is interesting and combines live action with animation and still images. This feels very random but in the context of this particular film, it actually works in its favour. Both Dillon and Ganz narrate over the animation and still images, giving us monologues that act as food for thought and raise questions about morality, life, death and so on. It’s an intense film in that regard and one that you have to really concentrate on in order to enjoy properly.
The House That Jack Built is a depressing, harrowing and strange film. Its blend of sadistic violence and humour makes it a truly unique horror film that seems to appeal to a very specific audience. It’s not for the faint of heart, and Jack’s misogynistic killing sprees teamed with his nihilistic outlook on life is bound to be uncomfortable for many to witness. As a case study on a serial killer it’s a fascinating watch, but out of the three films I’ve seen, this one is unfortunately the weakest in my eyes.
Directed by: Lars Von Trier
Starring: Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman