Jack is probably many things, but he’s first and foremost a psychopathic serial killer. And this is his story, Jack: Portrait of a Serial Killer if you will, which spawns throughout twelve years, told in a series/segments of “incidents” with the lens of our favorite Danish drunk uncle, Lars Von Trier.
The 1st incident starts almost straight to the point. We’re on some road in the woods where a lady, simply called Lady 1, (Uma Thurman) is stranded with her broken car and broken jack, and makes sure that the first driver stops to help her. And it’s her lucky day because here’s Jack himself, yes with a capital J, (Matt Dillon) with his red van which he uses to transport his fresh victims with. This lady seems to have have some kind of death wish, or Autassassinophilia (the fetish of the risk of being killed) as there’s not many other ways to rationalize her sardonic behaviour as she taunts Jack by saying he could be a serial killer as he drives her to the nearest blacksmith. We all know what the scene leads up to as she continues to push his buttons and hits the jackpot with the final straw by calling him “too much of a wimp to kill anyone.” He slams the breaks and bashes her skull in with her broken jack. How … symbolic, if not the best ironic punchline ever, where we can already see the cynical pitch-black humor that starts to reek. He hides her car and takes her body to a freezer storage that he bought from a pizza shop, a place we’ll visit frequently as the stock of bodies starts to fill the place. And why does he collect the bodies? Oh, you’ll see…
The 2nd incident shows us the more calculated and manipulative tactics of Jack by making an elderly woman, or Lady 2, to believe he’s a policeman despite he cant show her a batch. This lady seems to have the bullshit alarms somewhere, but as the sneaky manipulator he is, she finally lets him inside the house where Jack strangles her. While it seemed to go pretty smooth and easy, the lady suddenly wakes up, gasps after air and Jack has to finish her off by stabbing her. Oh shit. Oh shit, indeed, because we also learn that poor Jack has Obsessive Compulsive Disorders, the worst handicap a serial killer can possess. And now with blood stained around the floor and walls, he spends the rest of the day cleaning up, going back and forth inside the house and his van as a yo-yo, even when hearing police sirens approaching. The only thing he always seems to forget is using gloves. If this is intentionally or a slip-up in the script is not easy to tell.
So, what about his romantic life? Any bird in his cage? We see a segment of Jack’s attempt to be in a relationship with a young girlfriend (played by Riley Keough), a scene I won’t spoil further other than it’s bizarre and as romantic as a moisty shithouse infested with flies, and just like we would imagine to be in a hollow and destructive relationship with a psychopath. Jack practices to smile in front of the mirror to do a shallow impression, like a politician preparing for a speech, but the only thing he can pull off is a smirk. Yeah, that narcissistic, arrogant smirk. Brrr, gross! We also see other sides of Jack, of course, as a struggling artist with an interest in photography. He drags his dead victims out of the freezer to take group photos of them, just some normal hobby activities for Jack. He has more plans with the corpses, by the way, just wait and see. He’s also an architect who, as the title itself says, wants to build a house which never seems to live up to his compulsive perfections.
And I haven’t even mentioned Verge yet. Who? His imaginative listener and debater which he confesses all his actions and highlights of his life as a serial killer to. Verge has the voice of a fragile old man (performed by Bruno Ganz) and further we go into the bleak, meaningless and hellish world of Jack, he seems more and more repulsed, shocked, and drained, just like the us, the audience. But if even he can sit through two and a half hour of Jack’s depraved insanity, then so can you. It does, however, reach the top in the 3rd incident which I won’t spoil, other than this is the sequence that sparked the controversy at the Cannes Film Festival where the audiences stormed out in shock, anger, disgust and all that which is always an effective selling strategy for the next film by Lars Von Trier.
And having in mind that this is a Lars Von Trier film, where his name alone is a huge trigger-point for many for whatever reason, I had no clue what to expect when preparing myself for this in the movie theater back in 2018. As a character study of the mind of a serial killer, I would almost call this a masterpiece and undoubtedly one of the very best in the sub-genre of this type. It’s a raw and unfiltered portrait of a serial killer where we see how Jack evolves in his craft of killing, his deranged view on life, art and…grapes. Yeah, there’s a fifteen-minutes or so screentime dedicated to a discussion between Jack and Verge about grapes and vine. Start to sounds a little pretentious, you say? Well, serial killers and psychopaths are pretentious. Super duper uber-pretentious they are, just look up interviews/clips of John Wayne Gacy, Dennis Rader, Ted Bundy and numerous politicial figures that’s dominated the limelight for the past two years.
Matt Dillon, who took his main inspiration from Ted Bundy is phenomenal in his role and makes Jack into his own unique beast of a character. I can’t deny that Dillon looks more like a slightly younger version of Bruce Campbell here, but that’s probably just me. However, he truly embraces it to make sure to give us a wild, entertaining ride into a crazyman’s odyssey into pure, demented darkness which you can only guess where it ever will end. And of course the film has some of the well-known trademarks of Von Trier with his artistic ways, freedom with its use of symbolism, metaphors and all that shit that pretty much makes his films so devise, polarizing and generally makes people go nuts. He puts a lot of his identity into his films, and to a certain extent it pisses people off, but that’s art, I guess. Trier himself views The House That Jack Built as an nihilistic celebrating of “the idea that life is evil and soulless“. Sure, can’t disagree on that. But, still on the surface there’s enough of a straight-forward story to enjoy here for us serial killer-buffs, and with the right sick and dark sense of humor the lengthy runtime will fly by.
Writer and director: Lars Von Trier
Country & year: Denmark, 2018
Actors: Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Sofie Gråbøl, Riley Keough, Jeremy Davies, Jack McKenzie, Mathias Hjelm, Ed Speleers, Emil Tholstrup, Marijana Jankovic, Carina Skenhede, Rocco Day, Cohen Day