Lars von Trier’s
‘The House That Jack Built’
By Owen Gleiberman, Chief Film Critic
Matt Dillon is spooky and possessed in Lars von
Trier's serial-killer drama, a movie that keeps you grimly absorbed and shut out
at the same time.
The story follows
Jack, a highly intelligent serial killer over the course of 12 years and depicts
the murders that truly develop Jack as a serial killer.
transcendently creepy image in “The
House That Jack Built,” Lars von
Trier’s two-and-half-hour drama starring Matt Dillon as a serial killer in the late ’70s.
The movie is divided into five “incidents” — the word used by
Jack (Dillon), a loner and failed architect in the Pacific
Northwest, to describe the gruesome banquet of homicide he orchestrates and
improvises, each act of hideous violence made different from the last (though he
thinks of all of them as works of art).
Director: Lars von Trier
Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Sofie Gråbøl, Riley
Keough, Jeremy Davies.
Release Date: May 14,
CREDIT: Courtesy Zentropa
In one of these
atrocities, he has been out for an afternoon hunting with his “family” — a woman
(Sofie Gråbøl) he’s seeing and her
two young sons — and, in a shocking moment, he stands in a rifle tower and guns
down both boys. The second murder is a shot to the head that, in its
suck-in-your-breath way, evokes the JFK assassination.
Okay, that’s horrible. But the truly creepy moment arrives after that. Jack
takes the corpses to the walk-in freezer where he stores the bodies of all his
victims. He waits until rigor mortis is setting in and then, using tools, he
sets one of the boy’s faces so that it looks…just so. We get a glimpse of it:
The face is now fixed with a hideous bloody grin, so that the boy resembles a
dead tween version of the Joker. That’s a memorable image of the evil men are
House That Jack Built,” however, only rarely achieves that level of
disturbing poetic awe. The film lopes along in a way that’s grimly absorbing
yet, at the same time, falls short of fully immersive. And that’s not just
because a lot of it doesn’t track along the spectrum of reality-based
storytelling. (This is a movie that features, in scene after scene, the world’s
dumbest cops.) Shot in the stripped-down, naturalistic hand-held manner that
gives von Trier’s films their immediacy, but also leaves you with the feeling
that he’s making up scenes as he goes along, “The
House That Jack Built” presents a murder junkie of cold-eyed lunacy
and raging indifference who the movie doesn’t necessarily want you to
There’s an integrity to that, since serial killers are weirdly wired animals.
It’s folly, on some level, to try and “explain” them. In “The
House That Jack Built,” Dillon gives a spooky and
possessed performance, one that reaches to the outer limits of a compulsive
murderer’s flat affect and lunar oddity. At first he’s a volatile nerd, in
buttoned-up shirts and aviator frames (very Dahmer) and plastered-down hair, who
talks and talks his way into a victim’s house. (He’s so nutjob obsessive that if
you listen long enough, the crazy patter starts to turn manipulative.) His Jack
puts on an imitation of emotions and then wears them like a badly fitting set of
clothes. He also strangles, stabs, mutilates, and fires bullets in
full-metal-jacket casings. He has no feeling for others, and that’s what haunts
us: Looking at Jack, we don’t feel a thing — or, rather, we feel an absence of
empathy that mirrors his own.
But that’s also a problem for the film. Jack is by turns cunning and sloppy,
arrogant and opaque. He suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, which
compels him to return to one victim’s house three times to clean up the
tell-tale blood he only imagines is there. He also likes to tempt fate, taking
chances that are completely…well, insane. Through it all, though, he remains a
man who’s lifeless on the inside. And “The House That Jack Built” is too. It’s
not just a prestige sadomasochistic exploitation film, like von Trier’s
“Antichrist” or parts of “Nymphomanic: Vol. I and II.” But it’s a drama that
leaves you shaken yet detached, chilled and a little numb. Almost every scene in
it has been overly designed to grab your attention.
Von Trier, for a while now, has winked at the way that he himself projects
the spirit of a killer. The characters in his films — Emily Watson in “Breaking
the Waves,” Björk in “Dancer in the Dark,” just about everyone in “Dogville” —
have often ended up dying in what feels like the director’s ritualized acts of
execution. And the comments that got von Trier banned from Cannes seven years
ago, when he confessed in a press conference to having maybe just a tiny little
soft spot for Hitler (“I think he did some wrong things…but yeah, I understand
much about him and I sympathize with him a little bit”), fed into the von Trier
cult of the-killer-inside-me. That moment was the culmination of his transition
from artist to punk provocateur who wore the snarky perversity of his aggression
like an armband.
When von Trier walked into the theater of the Palais just before the world
premiere of “The House That Jack Built,” the audience greeted him with a
standing ovation that lasted for five minutes. The warm welcome seemed to be a
way of saying: All is forgiven. We still love you. And now more than ever, we
need an auteur like you. What the festival needed, after an opening week as
bereft of headlines as this one, was a big bang, and “The House That Jack Built”
delivered it — though given that it features an intensely compelling movie star
as a human butcher, and serves up his crimes with a glare that’s as
matter-of-fact as it is intense, it hardly needed to be a great work to provide
that. When a hundred people walked out of the screening midway through, to von
Trier that must have been the equivalent of cheers and applause.
Von Trier, to me, hasn’t made anything close to a masterpiece since “Breaking
the Waves,” in 1996, and “The House That Jack Built” doesn’t spoil that record.
It’s halfway between a subversive good movie and a stunt. It’s designed to get
under your skin, and does. But it would have gotten under your skin more if it
offered a humane counterpart to Jack — if it didn’t remain so fixated on Matt
Dillon’s disaffected zombie drone.
The opening episode sets the tone: Jack is driving along in his hand-painted,
windowless cherry-red van, and he picks up a woman whose car has broken down,
played by Uma Thurman with a flirtatious hostility that seems almost designed to
goad someone into becoming a serial killer. Jack has never murdered anyone
before (has he thought about it? We aren’t told), but it doesn’t take long for
him to smash her face in with a broken car jack — which makes us think, after a
thousand movies and “Law & Order” episodes: How is he going to get away with
The lackadaisical crime-hunt dimension gets explained by the pre-forensic
’70s setting. And also, to a degree, by the kind of luck that’s part of what
lends serial killers their confidence: When a state line favors Jack’s quick
hiding of Thurman’s car, or when (after the second incident) he drags the
victim’s body along the road, face down, from the back of his van, which seems
like an act of grandiose self-sabotage, and then watches the rain wash away the
trail of blood and flesh he has left behind, it’s as if something in the cosmos
were looking out for him. Jack creates a serial-killer handle for himself — “Mr.
Sophistication” — and von Trier keeps playing David Bowie’s “Fame,” though it’s
a ham-handed device, since the notion that serial killers seek celebrity is a
cliché (and one that’s not necessarily borne out by what we see here).
If you’re sensing that there might just be a tinge of sadism toward women in
“The House That Jack Built,” von Trier, in this case, is both guilty as hell and
— to a degree — bizarrely off the hook. Because, of course, it’s the character’s
sadism. Then again, the question has to be asked: Is von Trier reveling in the
misogynistic bad vibes? Is he getting off on it? That’s a gut call, and my gut
in this case says no. That said, the fourth incident, which features Riley
Keough, will leave you squirming with a discomfort that veers distressingly
close to a torture-porn hangover. Keough’s Jaqueline — or as Jack, with rank
distaste, calls her, “Simple” — is a young woman who dresses like a prostitute
for a date with Jack. He comes over, and though he’s faking a leg injury, he’s
no longer the geek. He’s stronger and more virile, and he’s got his victim where
he wants her. But when he pulls down her top and begins to draw dotted cutting
lines around her breasts, we think, “Oh, no…” And the movie follows through on
There have been a handful of films over the decades that have lured us inside
the lives of serial killers. “The Boston Strangler” did it 50 years ago. And in
1986, Michael Mann’s “Manhunter,” the most accomplished thriller of the modern
era, turned Tom Noonan into the greatest psycho since “Psycho” — and part of the
horror was that we got to know him. But “The House That Jack Built” never gets
us to fully identify with Dillon’s Jack. The movie is constructed from his point
of view (there’s no one else’s), but he’s too much of a sicko not to draw back
Instead, we’re meant to stare right through him and lock into a cathartic
kinship with von Trier, whose impulse toward subversion is working through Jack.
From the start, Jack carries on a dialogue, heard on the soundtrack, with Verge
(Bruno Ganz), a kind of metaphysical therapist confessor for serial killers
through the ages; he’s like God crossed with the caretaker in “The Shining.” He
has heard it all, and he greets Jack’s rationalization of his actions with a
weary dose of Euro mockery. But what we’re really listening to is von Trier have
a debate with himself.
The film keeps pausing for lectures: on the fermenting of grapes, the
architecture of cathedrals, the Stuka dive-bomber, and the Nazi concentration
camps (which plays as von Trier’s not-so-subtle apologia for his remarks seven
years ago.) Jack, in each case, is justifying his actions, treating murder as an
art form. Whereas Verge keeps telling him that true art requires love. I think
the meaning of all this is that Lars von Trier knows he’s no longer creating
films that are fueled by compassion, the way that “Breaking the Waves” was. He
has become an artist of anger, of addiction, of the kinkiest extremes. And so
now, he allies his view with that of a killer. “The House That Jack Built” ends
with an epilogue that feels as if it starts over five times. Von Trier keeps
trying to figure out how to deliver Jack into hell. But he dithers about it so
much that the only message the movie leaves you with is that he doesn’t want to
let go of him.
Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Out of Competition), May 14, 2018. Running
time: 155 MIN.
Production: An IFC Films release of a Zentropa, Centre National du Cinéma et
de l’Image, Cophenhagen Film Fund, Eurimages, Film I Väst, Film und Medien
Stiftung NRW, Nordisk Film & TV Fond production, in cooperation with
Concorde Filmverleih, Danmarks Radio, Les Films du Losange, MEDIA Programme of
the European Union, Nordisk Film Distribution, Potemkine, and Sveriges
Television, with support from Danish Film Institute, Swedish Film Institute.
Producers: Louise Vesth, Jonas Bagger, Marianne Slot. Executive producers: Piv
Bernth, Peter Aalbaek Jensen.
Crew: Director, screenplay: Lars von Trier. Camera (color, widescreen):
Manuel Alberto Claro. Editor: Molly Marlene Stensgaard. Music: Victor Reyes.
With: Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Sofie
Gråbøl, Riley Keough, Jeremy Davies.