• Audrey Walter

The House That Jack Built Review

Updated: Jul 16, 2020

A Pretentious American Psycho

The House That Jack Built is a film by Lars Von Trier and stars Matt Dillon as the main actor, Jack. As a horror movie lover, this movie had been on my watch list for quite a while. And as a Lars von Trier fan, I was excited to view the film. Lars von Trier has created some controversial yet unique films, my favorites being Nymphomaniac and Antichrist. I wondered how daring this movie would be compared to his previous ones.

But what I found was even worse than controversy: pretentiousness.

Spoilers Ahead!

The House That Jack Built follows Jack, who is an aspiring/failing architect with a taste for blood. But Jack is also a serial killer. The movie is split into five episodes where Jack recounts his most notable murders. Between each episode, viewers will get some commentary from Jack and a mysterious man named Verge. This commentary usually dives inside Jack’s brain to get more knowledge of who he is and why he does these heinous acts.

Now, the serial killer genre is very overpopulated. It can tiptoe into horror or be more of a true-crime film. Serial killer movies can sometimes be cheesy as well. I was interested in how Jack would differ from these tropes. I was pleasantly surprised that the portrayal of Jack was accurate to an actual serial killer.

Jack admits he has a plethora of mental illnesses that cause his personality. He has crippling OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), narcissism, and a mix of psychopathic/sociopathic tendencies. I even had to research small differences between psychopaths and sociopaths because Jack is a perfect mixture of both.

Jack has no empathy at all for his victims and thinks of himself as smarter than most people. He grew up without much of a family, which gives cause to sociopathic thinking. He is attracted to violence and almost needs it to thrive. Yet he goes between being cautious and being careful when he murders his victims. And to top it all off, he seems to have a dislike for women and finds them below him.

Jack is a clear case of an insane killer with no remorse.

Lars von Trier attempted to put a unique spin on his film by using his classic chapters used in Nymphomaniac. These chapters worked out and were another way of viewing Jack’s opinions on others. In almost all the chapters, the victims were usually naive women or women who were dating Jack. But when all these chapters were completed, the movie dons a tone that is hard to forget...in a bad way.

Lars von Trier creates a Dante’s Inferno-like ending, with Verge (whose name is actually Vergil, after the hell messenger in the Divine Comedy) taking Jack on a tour through the circles of hell. Some circles were obvious while some circles were completely skipped.

I assume this is the fifth circle of hell: Anger.

I would’ve liked a more detailed showing of hell, but the film was already too long anyway. The circles were strange, to be honest. One was filmed with a Go-Pro, another had them traveling in bubbles, and one had them in a strange still-like painting that barely moved. I remember watching these parts with a perplexed look on my face. It was too weird and avant-garde compared to the last two hours I just watched.

This film felt like we watched Jack kill and ta-da, he goes to hell. I guess the bits that actually mattered were in the storytelling itself, but that made for boring viewing since the movie is two hours and 30 minutes long. What I did enjoy was the interesting symbolism, which von Trier is known for. The symbols weren’t as littered through the movie like in Nymphomaniac, but there were still enough of them to interpret.

First, Jack explains how his mother wanted him to become an engineer, but he wanted to become an architect. This is the only mention of his family at all in the movie. Jack prefers to take action rather than sit and think about what he wants to do. He explains that architects actually do things, while engineers do not. Many people are afraid to act out their darkest thoughts, but Jack does them with no fear or remorse.

The next recurring symbol is a famous one, both for von Trier and for mainstream culture: the tiger and the lamb. Oh, wait, it’s the lion and the lamb, isn’t it? Well, not in this movie. Jack explains the tiger is savage and the lamb is innocent; when the tiger kills and eats the lamb, it becomes immortal through art. Art meaning the act of killing, as Jack reminds us throughout the film. I can only assume Jack believes he is doing a service by killing his victims.

Interestingly enough though, with Jack being the artistic architect, he never ends up building the house he so wanted to build. Every material was wrong, every layout was wrong, and so Jack ends up tearing it down and rebuilding it again.

The house that Jack built. Cute, right?

The act of destruction can be compared to Jack’s need to kill. When he feels down about his house, he destroys it. When he no longer feels a rush, he needs to kill. At the end of the movie, he realizes his art and his house are not two separate things--they are one and the same. The corpses he has collected over the years are built into a house. This house of death always protects Jack and makes him feel somewhat sane.

After he builds this house, he seems to die from the police shooting into the freezer where he kept the corpses. He’s transported into hell, where the weird circles of hell begin. In the end, Jack attempts to climb a wall over the final depths of hell to get to heaven. But he fails halfway, falling into a waterfall of fire. In the end, we see this “firefall” turn into a negative image. Jack always said a negative shows the truest image. In this case, Jack has fallen deep into darkness and where he belongs.

It’s quite comical though since Verge tells him that they passed the circle he was supposed to deliver Jack to. But because of his narcissism, Jack thinks he will be able to make it to heaven. This shows how smart serial killers think they are when they really aren’t.

I believe Verge knew this in the first place, which is why he gave him such an extensive tour. It’s what Jack deserved. Even so, watching the ending didn’t feel satisfying at all.

Although I enjoyed the symbolism in the movie, some of it felt very pretentious. But I also figured that a narcissistic serial killer would be very pretentious anyway, so I can accept it. Matt Dillon did a great job of portraying Jack. It was great seeing how monotone Matt could get, while also being able to portray panic from his OCD.

Jack's signature fake smile.

But I wanted to see more! I wanted to see Jack fake emotions like he said he could. It seemed like the tone was very stagnant, which made dialogue seem boring.

Verge’s dialogue was okay, but because of the actor's (Bruno Ganz) Swiss accent, I couldn’t quite understand some of the things he said. And sometimes, the dialogue in the movie came across as humorous. Some of the humor was intentional, while some wasn’t.

It became distracting at some points.

And remember when I spoke about pretentiousness? Well, this movie was full of it.

It’s very common to dislike Lars von Trier. He’s said that he "understands Hitler" and he creates movies for the shock value. The dislike is understandable, but I’ve still enjoyed his movies. But...the many people who have called his previous films “art” have made von Trier believe that he is the ultimate artist, quite like the way Jack views his murders.

Is the movie a self-insert? Maybe. Obviously Lars is not a serial killer, but his art is shocking in the way that Jack’s is. You see, Lars wants to rile his audience up. After his remarks on Hitler, he’s put Hitler clips in The House That Jack Built as well as cast Bruno Ganz, who is noted for playing Hitler in the film Downfall. Lars even put clips of his own movies while Verge and Jack spoke about art and depravity.

It’s safe to say that Lars von Trier thinks of himself and his movies as the ultimate art of depravity. Do I still enjoy his movies? Yes. Did I enjoy this pretentious self-insert? No.

Other than the pretentiousness, I noticed some inspiration taken from other movies. It felt as if Lars von Trier wanted to make his own American Psycho. There was also an emphasis on the color red throughout the movie, which reminded me of The Sixth Sense.

This confirms it: the women of the movie are wearing red!

The jack that’s used to kill Uma Thurman at the beginning of the movie is red. The trail of blood being washed away by rain during the second incident is obviously red. The hats on Jack, the mother, and her two sons were red. The magic marker Jack used to mark Jacqueline’s chest: red. Jack’s car, S.P.’s cloak: all red. The window on the freezer door is also red. I think I missed a few, but you get the point. In this case, the color red meant who would die.

I enjoyed the little homage, though.

And, don’t get me wrong, I love Fame by David Bowie, but why in the world did the song have to play at random moments in the movie? It was laughable and felt annoying. The pacing of the movie was awful--the scenes went on for way too long. This movie has so much material to go over, but I think I covered it all.

My Verdict?

This movie is a long snoozefest with a strange ending. Can it be explained? Yes! It’s not some avant-garde movie that relies on symbolism. It’s a serial killer movie! Lars von Trier wanted to make it into something it wasn’t: an art film.

I give The House That Jack Built a 5/10.

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