Review: As a Introduction to Von Trier, THE HOUSE THAT JACK Built is an Intriguing, Engrossing Film

A few years ago, a friend of mine loaned me her copy of Antichrist and told me it was a must-see, especially being the staunch horror fan I consider myself to be. That film sat on my shelf for about two years; I never had the courage to sit down and watch it. I knew the film had been regarded as an extremely controversial work of cinema, known for its horrific onscreen displays and although I’ve regrettably made it through films like Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, I wasn’t sure that I was ready to experience a film that Roger Ebert called “the most despairing film” he had ever seen. In other words, I wasn’t in a big hurry to permanently scar my memory, so I never did. Flash forward a few years to present day. I saw a trailer for von Trier’s latest film, The House That Jack Built and I was instantly intrigued by its aesthetic. The trailer teased Matt Dillon as a sadistic serial killer who preys on women, all set to a score that bounced back and forth between Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita No. 2 in C Minor and David Bowie’s “Fame”. I’ve always been mildly fascinated with serial killers and true crime so although I was a Von Trier VirginTM, I thought this film might serve well as an introduction to the provocative world of von Trier.

In The House That Jack Built, our title character (Matt Dillon) explains some of his major crimes or “incidents” to a character called Verge (Bruno Ganz), as he embarks on a literal journey to hell. Much like Virgil guides Dante through Inferno, Verge guides Jack through a retelling of the incidents, prompting him with questions about his crimes. Although we only get a breakdown of a few of his murders, we learn that Jack has actually killed more than 60 people, the bodies of whom he stores in a large, walk-in freezer in an undisclosed location off a difficult to find side street. The first murder we see play out occurs when Jack is driving down the road and he sees a woman (Uma Thurman) who appears to be having car trouble. Jack stops after she waves him down and convinces him to help her. The woman gets into Jack’s car and casually begins questioning her decision to get in the car with a stranger because he “could be a serial killer”. She mentions this quite a few times and the scene drips with irony as she muses on with her wild theory. Eventually, the woman meets her inevitable fate and after Jack makes sure she’s good and dead, we get our first glimpse of Jack’s storage freezer which he will continue to populate with corpses throughout the film. From this point on, the murders become painfully more gruesome and disturbing as Jack racks up the body count over the course of a decade.

Set in the 1970’s, the film has a really slick yet subtle 70’s vibe and it’s hard not to compare Jack to some of the most notorious serial killers of that decade. Jack seemed to channel some major Ted Bundy vibes with familiar quirks like imitating a law officer and simulating a handicap. However, Jack didn’t start out so suave. One of the most interesting elements of the film was the evolution of Jack. When he begins his career as a serial killer, he seems awkward, hesitant, unsure. He’s also affected by intense OCD that causes him to have perfectionist tendencies like cleaning the same bloodstained spot over and over and over again. As Jack continues his sick practice, he becomes more confident and arrogant, so much so that he dons himself the nickname “Mr. Sophistication”. As he evolves, he becomes a better actor, a better liar and manipulator, and so, a better serial killer. Soon after Jack kills his first victims and stores them in the freezer, he begins arranging the bodies into bizarre, macabre art pieces. He constructs some of the tableaus at the crime scenes and photographs his work before ultimately bringing the bodies back to join the others in their frozen grave. The end result is a sick and twisted, repulsive nightmare scene that just might be a metaphor for von Trier himself. He makes these films, these pieces of art, each one more disturbing than the last, testing limits and pushing boundaries with each new entry and he’s formed quite the legacy for himself. Just as Jack strived to become Mr. Sophistication, von Trier is unrelenting on his path to become the most controversial filmmaker out there.

The House That Jack Built clocks in at two and a half hours, which is a really long time to watch people be murdered, dismembered, and contorted into grotesque murder sculptures, but that being said, I never felt bored or too disturbed to leave. It may be because von Trier’s unique filmmaking style is brand new to me so I was completely engaged throughout the film, but I enjoyed it much more than I expected to. Matt Dillon was a much too convincing serial killer and I deeply enjoyed his performance, along with the female ensemble consisting of Uma Thurman, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Sofie Gråbøl, and Riley Keough. Although I don’t plan on racing to see my next von Trier film, I’m definitely intrigued and plan to make my way through his repertoire eventually.

The House That Jack Built is now available for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime Video, Youtube, and Google Play.