Movie Review: The House That Jack Built

Lars von Trier takes a long look at a sociopathic killer

The House That Jack Built  (Jack staví dům)
Directed by Lars von Trier
With Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Sofie Gråbøl, Riley Keough, Jeremy Davies

Controversial Danish director and provocateur Lars von Trier has delved deep into the mind of a serial killer with his new film, The House that Jack Built.

The film, starring Matt Dillon as a Jack, divided the audience at its debut in Cannes, with over 100 people walking out, but those who stayed giving it a six minute standing ovation.

Critics have also been polarized, with some calling it a masterpiece and others dismissing it as trash.

Masterpiece is a bit strong, but it is a challenging film for people who stick with it, and in a way rewarding.

Dillon gives an excellent performance, his best since The Saint of Fort Washington in 1993.

The House that Jack Built is very untypical psychological horror film, with Dillon getting firmly behind the sociopath he depicts. Jack comes off as a nice guy at times, even sympathetic, but he points out that all of his emotions are carefully rehearsed. His smiles are based on photos cut out of magazines.

Yet, despite his actions, as with Norman Bates in Psycho and Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, the audience gets sucked into his persona. When dumb luck saves him, there is a sense of relief.

Lars von Trier takes a strange approach to the narrative, but something that is seen often in horror. Jack is telling his tale to a mostly unseen person named Verge (Bruno Ganz), as they make some sort of journey to an unspecified place. The audience can pretty much guess where that is.

The dialogue between them happens on a completely black screen. During his journey, Jack tells five allegedly true stories about his life.

The concept is not that far divorced from the Crypt Keeper in the Tales for the Crypt films, or other horror films where a narrator appears to tie together some short horror segments. The practical reason is that The House That Jack Built was conceived as a TV series, and the segments are apparently five ideas for episodes.

But the structure works. One of the big questions is why Jack wants to tell his tale. But he seems compelled to. He is not excusing his actions, or even asking for validation. He simply needs to tell it all to someone.

His narration is dry, backing up his claim to a complete lack of emotions or feelings. Famed Swiss-German actor Bruno Ganz as his conversation partner Verge offers no absolution, and not that much interest. Ganz has had a long career in art films, and is perhaps best-known for playing Adolf Hitler in Downfall.

The five segments each stand alone and feature some top stars. Uma Thurman stands out in the first, giving a performance reminiscent of her work for Quentin Tarantino. She plays a bit of an over-the-top stereotype, but it helps to get the film off to a hot start.

Riley Keough, the granddaughter of Elvis Presley, turns up later as another acquaintance of Jack's. The scenes with here are the most gritty, and she is the most developed among the female characters. Viewers may remember her from American Honey. She is proving to be rather versatile as an actress.

While the film is billed as horror, Lars von Trier rejects most of the genre conventions. There are no slamming doors or people popping out of closets, no sudden crashes of music. Everything is on a slow burn.

Jack works methodically and tells his story in the same manner. At times, he finds black humor in his deeds and tries to share that with Verge. But Verge isn't the laughing type.

The film does not lack in gore, though. Jack goes into gruesome details, which we see acted out in flashbacks.

And scenes of corpses of the victims take up a lot of screen time.

The film has in particular been criticized for a depiction of cruelty to animals, especially a scene from Jack's childhood that is used to foreshadow Jack's mental development.

Rest assured the scene is faked with special effects, and the film has the standard disclaimer at the end that no animals were harmed. But even as fakes scene, this has put many audience members off.

There is also some discussion of relative evil, whether one man with a handful of victims is worse than a dictator with millions. World War II footage is used as an illustration, which some people also found offensive as that documentary footage showed real people suffering.

The House That Jack Built runs 155 minutes, which a long haul for such dark material. Lars von Trier's fans are used to the director's excesses. But newcomers should be warned. The House That Jack Built has great acting and ideas, but is very dark and gruesome.

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