The House That Jack Built

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Lars von Trier

Starring

Matt Dillon Riley Keough Uma Thurman

Anticipation.

Lars von Trier’s previous film, Nymphomaniac, was a disaster. This looks like more of the same.

Enjoyment.

Did not see that coming.

In Retrospect.

A grotesque, lopsided edifice – take a few steps back and look up in sickened awe.

Lars von Trier is up to his old tricks in this absurdly macabre and deeply self-conscious portrait of a serial killer.

There is something truly perverse about the idea that actors, as an essential part of their job, must be able to convincingly fabricate the process of dying. Some meet with a magnificent fate, while others might slip quietly into the night. And there are those who have their frontal lobe tenderised with a busted car jack. Maybe it’s no coincidence that we use the verb ‘to shoot’ when capturing images on camera. Lars von Trier certainly spots the connection.

The House That Jack Built is the latest and possibly greatest film from Denmark’s merry prankster, and it poses the question: if actors have to die, then would that not, by proxy, make the director some kind of mass murderer? It’s a horror confessional riddled with saucy deceptions and grandiose myth-making.

This absurdly macabre tale is delivered from the vantage of the analyst’s couch, where actions are loaded with symbols, symbols are loaded with meaning, and meaning is then wiped out with a few carefully delivered bon mots. It is a compendium of grim atrocities which puts faith in the viewer to appreciate both irony and allegory. If it also serves as a meticulously calibrated dynamo for moral outrage, then that’s just dandy too.

Matt Dillon is magnificent in the role of Jack, von Trier’s slippery on-screen manqué. He is a chiselled, chillingly cordial and contemplative serial killer who views his work as serving the higher purpose of art and philosophy. If art is the product of a carefully manipulated context, then what’s stopping the act of murder from being viewed as social commentary, historical homage or ribald burlesque? Is evil born of seeing the iconic in the abysmal? And can an artwork itself be inherently evil? In short: is Lars von Trier evil?

We meet Jack at the beginning of his descent through Hell’s many circles. Bruno Ganz’s Verge is his sherpa, a kindly inquisitor who claims to be bore by the macho boasts of abject depravity articulated by so many of the screw-loose damned. But Jack piques his interest as he coldly regales Verge with details of five random incidents which he believe sum up his life. With each of these gory vignettes, von Trier takes time to flesh out characters, turn the screws and cultivate a cat-and-mouse drama – these ‘incidents’ aren’t just icily rendered schematics for some intellectual notion.

All the while he folds in literary allusions, psychological colour and reams of crackpot self-diagnosis. It’s all terrible fun. Jack is also an aspiring architect who wants to build his own house, and the action often pivots back to scenes of his stalled construction effort. As with the film itself, the basic structure is in place, then the bulldozers roll in and do their work. Jack fusses over finding the right materials for the job, and the film offers an acerbic punchline which says both serial killers and filmmakers should use whatever comes naturally to hand.

The film, meanwhile, deliberates on cathedral design, hunting trophies, dessert wines, the Holocaust, the genius of Glenn Gould and all number of odds and sods. Von Trier furtively offers up this cracked opus as personal biography, a careerwide statement of intent, an apology for past sins, an act of unabashed narcissism and a summing up of his entire project to date. He is tickling our feet with a blood-flecked duckling feather. Just try not to laugh.

Published 13 Dec 2018

Tags: Bruno Ganz Lars von Trier Matt Dillon Riley Keough Uma Thurman

Anticipation.

Lars von Trier’s previous film, Nymphomaniac, was a disaster. This looks like more of the same.

Enjoyment.

Did not see that coming.

In Retrospect.

A grotesque, lopsided edifice – take a few steps back and look up in sickened awe.

Related Reviews

Lars von Trier: ‘I know how to kill’

By David Jenkins

The Danish devil talks about murder, movies and his sensational new film The House That Jack Built.

In praise of Antichrist – Lars von Trier’s anti-misogynist masterpiece

By Amy Simmons

The Danish filmmaker’s visceral battle of the sexes is one of his most misunderstood – and best – works.

Melancholia

By Jonathan Crocker

There’s something powerful here, but von Trier hasn’t quite managed to force it through the screen.

review

What are you looking for?

Little White Lies Logo

About Little White Lies

Little White Lies was established in 2005 as a bi-monthly print magazine committed to championing great movies and the talented people who make them. Combining cutting-edge design, illustration and journalism, we’ve been described as being “at the vanguard of the independent publishing movement.” Our reviews feature a unique tripartite ranking system that captures the different aspects of the movie-going experience. We believe in Truth & Movies.

Editorial

Design

Sign up to our newsletter to hear more from team LWLies