The House That Jack Built review – a killer with room for improvement

Matt Dillon’s crazed architect recalls Lars von Trier’s grisly greatest hits in the director’s perversely timed black comedy

In 2011, I interviewed Lars von Trier at his Zentropa offices in Denmark. I told him how much I liked Anti-Christ and Melancholia, while also confessing that I absolutely hated The Idiots. “That’s OK,” he replied, “as long as you really hated it!” I remembered that comment when reading Von Trier’s response to the walkouts that greeted The House That Jack Built when it premiered at Cannes in May. Asked how he felt about the reaction to his impressively grotesque latest, he deadpanned: “I’m not sure if they hated it enough.”

It’s easy to bridle at Von Trier’s films, particularly when they feature moments of New York Ripper-style gore, button-pushing provocations (“Children, the most sensitive subject of all!” says one character), duckling mutilation (nb: no animals were harmed), and grotesque human sculptures that resemble the shock-art of the Chapman brothers. But the prevailing atmosphere of The House That Jack Built is one of sardonic, self-reflexive disdain. Von Trier has suggested that this may be his final film, and you can certainly read it as a sort of last will and testament, with an audaciously ridiculous metaphysical punchline.

In Nymphomaniac, a woman recounted her self-proclaimed sexual wickedness to an apparently sympathetic man, proudly demanding damnation. Here, Matt Dillon’s titular serial killer drones on to his initially unseen companion Verge (Bruno Ganz), who warns him not to “believe you’re going to tell me something I haven’t heard before”. As the two journey into darkness, Jack recounts five randomly defining “incidents” from his life.

In the first, Uma Thurman plays an unnamed stranded driver who falls foul of a broken jack (pun surely intended) after breaking down on a remote road. She tells Jack he looks like a serial killer, and she’s right; from the Dennis Nilsen glasses to the killing-for-company taxidermy tendencies, he’s an almost parodic textbook creep. Next, we have the strangling of a middle-aged woman (Siobhan Fallon Hogan), the hunting of a mother (Sofie Gråbøl) and her kids, and the butchery of a woman whom Jack calls “Simple” (Riley Keough). It all sounds very perfunctory, and that’s largely how it’s played – as distanced and disconnected as the vague 1970s/80s setting.

Intercut with the murders, we see footage of the pianist Glenn Gould (“he represents art”), and hear Jack expound at length about engineering versus architecture. For years, he’s been designing, building, destroying and then rebuilding a house that never meets his OCD expectations. The murders are a byproduct of these compulsive tendencies, and Jack seems more interested in the process of cleaning up afterwards, although a scene in which he can’t leave the house of a victim for fear that he missed a spot raises grim chuckles, of which there are several. Make no mistake, like Dante’s depiction of the inferno, The House That Jack Built is a comedy, albeit far from divine.

Uma Thurman with Matt Dillon in The House That Jack Built.
Uma Thurman with Matt Dillon in The House That Jack Built. Photograph: Allstar/Zentropa Entertainments

From the bells ringing in heaven at the end of Breaking the Waves to a tableau-vivant evocation of Eugène Delacroix’s La Barque de Dante (aka Dante and Virgil in Hell) here, Von Trier’s films have long occupied an explicitly theological universe. Just how far his tongue is in his cheek is debatable. “I’m not a man of faith,” says Jack, before stating that such a declaration is “totally crazy, considering our present situation”. There’s also a lengthy discussion of William Blake’s tiger/lamb dichotomy (apparently a key element of collaborator Jenle Hallund’s original idea), and an eerie discussion of the “dark light” of negative photographic images.

“You are constantly trying to manipulate me,” says Verge, sounding like one of Von Trier’s critics. No wonder a montage of the horrors of the world features fleeting clips from Von Trier’s back catalogue, as if the director wants us to read Jack’s mission statement as his own; the ramblings of a verbose, self-pitying psychopath with dreary intellectual pretensions. It’s particularly perverse that, after years making movies such as Dancer in the Dark, which empathetically explored the suffering of women, Von Trier chose this #MeToo moment to make a film seen solely from the solipsistic perspective of “an evil man”.

With its explicit acknowledgement of Trump-era chauvinism (Maga-style red caps and “why is it always the man’s fault” whingeing), this sporadically arresting slice of grand guignol takes pointed swipes at misogyny while occasionally seeming to wallow in it. Perhaps its greatest sin is one of bad timing. As always with Von Trier, we can only guess whether that sin is intentional or ironic.

Watch a trailer for The House That Jack Built.


Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The House That Jack Built review – self-congratulatory serial-killer gorefest
Matt Dillon plays an architect turned murderer in Lars von Trier’s latest provocation, which plays out with the director’s customary humourlessness

Peter Bradshaw

14, Dec, 2018 @9:38 AM

Article image
Prevenge review – audacious horror from a mother of invention
Writer-director Alice Lowe stars as an expectant mother urged into a killing spree by her unborn baby

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

12, Feb, 2017 @9:00 AM

Article image
Beau Is Afraid review – Ari Aster’s patience-testing shaggy dog story
Joaquin Phoenix plays a hapless middle-aged man on a tortuous journey to see his mum in the Midsommar director’s three-hour black comedy of Oedipal angst

Mark Kermode

21, May, 2023 @7:00 AM

Article image
The House That Jack Built review – Lars von Trier serves up a smirking ordeal of gruesomeness
The Danish provocateur, back at Cannes after a seven-year ban, is on exasperating form with a slow and nasty serial killer thriller partly redeemed by its spectacular finale

Peter Bradshaw

15, May, 2018 @5:43 AM

Article image
American release of Lars von Trier's The House That Jack Built falls foul of ratings board
Distributors of the serial killer film face sanctions after screening an unauthorised director’s cut in 100 cinemas across the US

Andrew Pulver

29, Nov, 2018 @12:00 PM

Article image
Green Room review – anarchy in a woodland retreat
Patrick Stewart is impressive as a white supremacist in a genuinely shocking horror-thriller about a punk band’s battle with neo-Nazis

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

15, May, 2016 @8:00 AM

Article image
Amulet review – Romola Garai’s room at the top holds untold horrors
An ex-soldier renovating an old house finds more than just refuge in the actor turned writer-director’s pulsating gothic shocker

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

30, Jan, 2022 @8:00 AM

Article image
I am not a Serial Killer review – portrait of the sociopath as a young man
Evoking the ghost of Donnie Darko, this weird horror hybrid is a darkly funny trip through the mind of a would-be killer

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

11, Dec, 2016 @9:00 AM

Article image
Pet Sematary review – disinterred and definitely shaken
This second attempt at a big-screen adaptation of Stephen King’s dark tale of a family pet rising from the dead mixes things up to chilling effect

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

07, Apr, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Blair Witch review – efficient horror sequel
The 1999 original terrified audiences with its ‘found footage’ shtick, but there are few surprises left down in the woods today

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

18, Sep, 2016 @8:00 AM