14th Dec2018

‘The House That Jack Built’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Sofie Gråbøl, Riley Keough, Jeremy Davies | Written and Directed by Lars von Trier

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Arch provocateur Lars von Trier returns with this shocking and disturbing serial killer drama The House That Jack Built starring Matt Dillon. As audacious as it is ludicrous, it’s consistently compelling, with an inspired final act that comes close to redeeming the horror of the preceding two hours.

Matt Dillon plays Jack, a prolific serial killer who’s racked up around 60 kills in late ’70s Oregon. As the film opens, we hear his voice, in darkness, confessing to a man named Verge (Bruno Ganz). The film is subsequently divided into five “incidents” (Jack’s words), each of which details a grisly murder that Jack deems important.

They include: Jack’s first murder, in which Uma Thurman’s plays a stranded motorist who’s so belittling that you wonder whether she’s actually trying to get murdered; a bereaved housewife (Siobhan Fallon Hogan), whose murder highlights Jack’s OCD tendencies; a woman (Sofie Gråbøl) and her two sons, who Jack describes as his own family; and a girlfriend (Riley Keough), upon whom Jack performs his own version of cosmetic surgery, in the film’s most sickening segment.

Throughout his confession, Jack maintains that what he’s doing is art, since he also stages and photographs the bodies, before storing them all in a walk-in freezer. To illustrate his point, von Trier includes newsreel footage (of Nazi atrocities, naturally – this is a von Trier movie, after all), animated segments, childhood flashbacks (including a piece of animal cruelty that ensures you’ll stay for the “No animals were harmed” credit) and even clips from his own movies, which seems hilariously self-indulgent even by von Trier’s standards.

The problem is that it’s difficult to know exactly what we’re meant to be feeling at any point. Dillon is a likeable actor and that goes some way towards maintaining the audience’s interest in Jack, but he’s also playing someone who’s incapable of emotion and his ghoulish actions are genuinely horrifying, especially in the scenes with the children and Keogh.

Occasionally, there are sly touches that suggest von Trier has a touch of subversion going as a sideline, such as the way that every policeman is depicted as an oblivious idiot, or the fact that several of the murders are treated with total indifference by the public, with witnesses failing (or not bothering) to connect the obvious dots that might have lead to Jack’s arrest. It’s those moments, even more than Jack’s acts of depravity, that create an effectively chilly atmosphere of gloom, despair and general nihilism.

Throughout The House That Jack Built, von Trier attempts to push a number of other buttons by having Jack say things like “Why is it always the man’s fault?” or claim that women make the best victims because they’re “easier to work with”, but the in-your-face provocation is so obvious – coupled with the fact that Jack is clearly a delusional sociopath – that it proves easy to ignore.

However, just when the audience reaches saturation point, with regard to both Jack’s grisly murders and his pontificating, von Trier switches gear to deliver a breath-takingly audacious final act that it would be churlish to spoil here. Suffice it to say that the clues were there all along and the finale (which deploys some impressive digital work) makes sense of both the confessional structure and the film itself, delivering an entirely satisfying ending with the perfect final shot. It’s also capped off with a musical outro that’s so deliciously cheeky that you end up laughing out loud. Indeed, if the entire movie was just a shaggy dog set up for that one joke, then you’d have to concede it was worth it. Well played, Lars. Well played.

***½. 3.5/5

The House That Jack Built is on limited release across the UK now.

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