The House That Jack Built
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Film: The House That Jack Built
Director: Lars von Trier
Writer: Lars von Trier
Starring: Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz and Uma Thurman
This was a film that I was turned on to by the news that people walked out during its screening at the Cannes Film Festival. I wrote a news article about this and personally was a little bit skeptical about it. I was still intrigued to see what this film was all about. I’m also a fan of the writer/director Lars von Trier, so that helps. I did see this at the Gateway Film Center and then a second viewing as part of the Summer Series for the Podcast Under the Stairs. The official synopsis is the story follows Jack (Matt Dillon), a highly intelligent serial killer, over the course of twelve years, and depicts the murders that really develop his inner madman.
We kick off with hearing talking with a black screen. One of the voices is Jack while the other is that of Verge (Bruno Ganz). It appears they are traveling somewhere and during this journey, Jack is telling the stories of 5 murders he committed that shaped him into who he is.
The first one is of Uma Thurman. She is a woman who asks for his help when she has a flat tire. She is quite brash. He calls him a serial killer and, in a way, bullies Jack around. He finally snaps and kills her. I am taking this as his first murder, but the film shows us glimpses of him as a boy, where it was in his nature to what he is grows into.
From here we see other woman that he murders and in-between each story, we learn more about Jack’s past and more insights into him as a person. The more he kills, the more depraved he becomes. To make things worse, he has a horrible case obsessive compulsive disorder that causes him to clean and tidy up rooms before he can leave. He also believes he is making art in what he is doing. Everything takes a turn when he tries to complete his greatest one yet but can he before everything tumbles down.
This recap was a little difficult to do, because part of it is that you really need to see and experience a lot of what happens in the film. I didn’t want to spoil things either. There is a lot to unravel as it runs for two and half hours. I will say that if you like serial killer films, this one is quite interesting. It does have a feel of Dexter in that we are getting a lot of narration from Jack as he tells us the things he did. I personally enjoy that, but I know some people might not.
Being this film is about a serial killer, I did find it interesting all of things that are incorporated into the character that match up with what a lot of real serial killers had going on. One of them being that Jack is attractive. He is quite smart; he has issues as a child where he would hurt animals. As stated above, he has OCD and he also mimics being a police officer at one point. There is another where he has a crutch to appear hurt and he even convinces a police officer to allow someone to come back with him. This attention to detail was something I thought was good. It isn’t fully original, but the care put in I can appreciate.
Something else I really enjoyed about the story is seeing the change in his character. We are getting him telling us this story, but we are seeing him as he becomes worse. It is odd that he is the killer in this film, but at some scenes, I was hoping that he wouldn’t get caught. I was thinking to myself that I shouldn’t be thinking this way, but the film presents it in such a way and he has such charisma that it was hard not to. I wouldn’t go as far to call him an anti-hero, but we do get invested. Going along with this, we see him overcome some of his earlier problems. He becomes better. It is here that he starts to toy with the police and the newspaper by sending them pictures of his crimes. He even goes as far as stating his name is ‘Mr. Sophisticated’. That growth into what he becomes and where he ends up is interesting.
There is also the issue of religion in this film. The epilogue really delves into this, but I won’t get into that too much. I will say that Verge has a direct representation with this though. It is interesting that early in the film, Jack states that he is an atheist. He does believe there is almost divine intervention though that allows him to get away with things. His god complex also seems to grow from him and it makes him more brash. As I also said as well, the ending delves into this much more. The reveal of the character, Verge, is interesting. I like what they do with this idea.
Now I want to shift over to an idea I could see people being upset about is the misogyny of Jack. I don’t necessarily this film is misogynistic though. I do believe that Jack is and I also believe that is another common trait among serial killers. Verge calls Jack out on this aspect. I don’t even think the female victims are stupid like Jack does. I think there’s the realism that you don’t know what is happening until it is too late. He is also charismatic and disarming. This is based in part with real crimes as well.
Moving away from the story, I’ll shift over to a minor gripe. The first time I saw this, I thought it ran too long. I still feel this to an extent. There are a lot of things that are repeated a couple of times that wasn’t really needed. We get some talk about art, architecture and engineering that doesn’t necessarily go anywhere outside of Jack living with thoughts of grandeur in what he’s doing. I think that some of this could be removed to tighten up. There are some things here that I think von Trier is putting in due to what has been said about him. He was trying to get a rise and that bogs it down for me. With that said though, I really dug the ending and where it went. I thought it was an interesting idea to use for this movie. Despite that runtime, it doesn’t necessarily feel like with this second watch.
From here I will go to the acting, which was amazing. Dillon did a phenomenal job as Jack. I think his look, how he plays the role and everything was perfect for it. As mean as it is to probably say, I could see him being this guy if he wanted to. Ganz is quite interesting in this film. We don’t see him until the ending, but I like who his character represents and who he is supposed to be. Thurman, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Sofie Gråbøl and Riley Keough were all good as the victims. It was interesting to see Keough topless as well. The rest of the cast rounded out the movie for what they needed as well.
Something else that was great were the effects, cinematography and the soundtrack. This was something that I was curious about as I knew a lot of people were upset about this part. They were done practically, so the amount of realism that went into them is a part of it. I don’t even think this is the most violent von Trier film I’ve ever seen. There was one that got to me, but I would say the effects were good. Going along with that, he did shoot the heck out of this movie. I thought it looked beautiful. We get some amazing shots with the use of mirrors and how things are framed. I’d also say that the soundtrack worked for what was needed. We get quite a bit of classical music that fit, especially with Jack’s lofty thoughts about himself. We also get quite a few times the use of David Bowie’s song Fame. I thought that was clever to use here.
Now with that said, I thought this was a good film. There are the makings of a great film here, but I think that there are just some minor missteps. The story was great as well as the acting and the effects. There are some darker aspects to the story I liked. The pacing would have been better if just some of the unneeded things were removed from it. As it is, it bogged some parts down for me. The soundtrack was used effectively, especially the use of the song Fame. I did have to watch this as the rated cut both times. I’m looking to grab the Director’s Cut soon and rewatch once more. After both viewings, I’m still sitting on this being good and just missing out on going higher.
My Rating: 8.5 out of 10