Movie Review: The House That Jack Built

By Jon Fuchs, Music Director
[Zentropa; 2018]
Rating: 8/10

A Lars von Trier film without controversy is like an ocean without tides, but the non-stop outrage that came out of Cannes this year for his newest film, The House That Jack Built, felt more sinister than usual. Over 100 people stormed out of the theater during the 150-minute serial killer drama, which was said to contain not only violence against women but also extreme gore, animal mutilation and the murdering of very small children. But fortunately for us twisted folks who wanted to get a glimpse of it, IFC Midnight and Zentropa decided to show the unrated director’s cut from Cannes in over 100 theaters across the country for one night only (Nov. 28), before the R-rated edit gets a wide release next month (and the MPAA already isn’t happy about it). While The House That Jack Built is soaked in the pretentious nihilism that is Lars von Trier, there’s no denying it’s his angriest, bloodiest and one of his most entertaining films yet.

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Split into five random incidents between a 12-year period, the film stars Matt Dillon as Jack, an architect who begins a mysterious persona as a serial killer, slashing and mutilating dozens of people while becoming known to the general public as “Mr. Sophistication.” But Jack is different from your typical Michael Myers or Leatherface; he sees every murder he commits as art, with each lifeless corpse he adds to his collection containing some sort of social commentary, like Patrick Bateman with less cocaine. During and in between each incident, including the nameless victims of Uma Thurman and Riley Keough, Jack reflects upon his killer career with Verge (Bruno Ganz), a mysterious figure who acts as both a subconscious for Jack and as a co-narrator for the audience.

The murder scenes themselves are without a doubt the best part of The House That Jack Built. In an American Psycho kind of way, these scenes are presented with a dry comedic tone, allowing the audience to laugh uncomfortably as they witness some of the most graphic violence they will ever experience. You’d think this wouldn’t work, but Matt Dillon’s unflinching performance and Lars von Trier’s sick filmmaking flow really well together, helping the viewer cope with the nightmare they’re currently watching. The violence itself is by far LVT’s most gruesome work yet, with each murder causing endless squirming and groans from every filmgoer. The more the film progresses, the more graphic it gets, all leading up to an unspeakable climax that’ll stick with you forever.

Where The House That Jack Built begins to crumble is in many of its in-between scenes, which are unbelievably pretentious and at times very unnecessary. When von Trier doesn’t know what to put on the screen, he resorts to pointless stock footage and in-your-face symbolism that gives the basic addition in Nymphomaniac, Vol. I a run for its money. Like many von Trier films, The House That Jack Built tirelessly references his other movies for no reason, trying to intertwine a certain theme or extended universe that just isn’t there. The pretentiousness lulls throughout its runtime until the film’s epilogue, which will either wow audiences with its dazzling batshit craziness or anger them with its symbolic ambiguity.

Even with its many flaws, there’s no denying that The House That Jack Built succeeds at being both unbelievably entertaining and endlessly nightmarish. It’s the best example of a love-it-or-hate-it kind of film – where you land on that scale fully depends on how squeamish you are with extreme gore and blatant snobbiness. But either way, it’s a movie experience that you won’t be able to get out of your head anytime soon.

Watch the trailer here:

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