Serial killers have recently become somewhat pop culture to our society; we are fascinated that they exist amongst us, intrigued by how their minds function, yet disgusted and outraged by the acts that they commit without conscious. The human race has become so obsessed with murderers that we’ve surrounded ourselves with TV shows, films, books, podcasts; all full of the gruesome details of what happened to each victim. That’s why when Danish director Lars Von Trier released his trailer for The House That Jack Built, we were already slathering at the jaws for a film that depicted every nasty moment, from the kill itself to what is done with the carcass afterwards. But this film is completely different to what was expected of the often controversial director.
Jack is an architect at heart and is determined to build his dream house situated in an isolated woodland area, with a picturesque view of the lake to watch the fog creep in the mornings. Over the course of 12 years, we are privy to five randomly picked murders that Jack committed during his span as a serial killer. He presents these murderous acts as culminations of his artwork, which all played a part in creating his final masterpiece.
Lars Von Trier has always had a unique way of horrifying the audience and using shock tactics to ensure his films garner a reputation in the world of cinema. Nymphomaniac gave us female liberation through graphic sexual depictions, including scenes of sadism and masochism, and Antichrist presented us with another sexually fuelled nightmare that featured scenes of genital mutilation, with the notorious image of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character She snipping her clitoris off. With this in mind it came as no surprise when their were cries from Cannes that The House That Jack Built was “vomitive” and caused walk-outs during the screening. However, the latest film from Von Trier isn’t the exploitative, extreme and ultra-violent piece of film that we’ve been expecting him to drag in front of us, it’s a psychological horror that even though delivers some moments of brutality, focuses more on the evil that is imbedded within a serial killers cerebral.
The House That Jack Built combines the bleakness of being a murderer and how it is almost a mundane and daily chore that must be completed with a dark sense of humour. Matt Dillion is exemplary in his performance as Jack and truly depicts the way that a murderer is engineered; they do not see killing as something to shock, for them it is a bore, they cannot resist the urge that compels them to kill yet it’s an impulse just like the need to satisfy hunger. Dillion is menacing when he needs to be, charms his way into the right situations when he needs to and wins the audience over with his raw jokes that force an uncomfortable audience into laughter. One moment we find ourselves entertained by Jack, and the next disturbed by his nonchalant behaviour towards murder and his victims. The character of Jack embodies everything that we know about serial killers, showing that Von Trier has done his homework – the tactics that they use to lure women, keepsakes of their victims, OCD tendencies, the inability to control aspects of their life, creating allies, and much more. It seems that Dillion also handed in his serial killer assignment before filming; his body language, facial expressions and idiosyncrasies are the perfect culmination of every famous serial killer we’ve ever been obsessed with.
The way it’s shot is not as glossy as some of Von Trier’s other works, however, it’s also not incredibly gritty either. Don’t expect to get the feeling that this is a homemade snuff film as that’s not the aesthetics you’ll see, however, during most of the murders it feels like we are behind the camera acting as an accomplice to Jack’s sickening hobby. During one particular scene as he strangulates a woman, the audience watch as the handheld camera comes in closer and closer to the victim until we can see her veins pulsate in her neck and the minute yet accurate marks left from the sheer force around her windpipe. This style of shot gives the film that nasty feeling that we want, but doesn’t feel too extreme or as if it’s placed there solely for the purpose of shocking the audience. Pair these scenes with cutaways to images of architecture, footage of Nazis and concentration camps, beautiful shots of Jack’s dream home, over the top epic depictions of Hell and you have everything you would expect from the voyage into one of Von Trier’s movies.
The majority of the murders witnessed within the film are women, which seems to come across as slightly misogynistic, however Von Trier defends this point within the film itself. Before anyone can call him out on this, he addresses the audience by clearly defining Jack as a man that loathes women. Even though it does have a slight misogynistic feel to it, the awful truth is that most serial killers do murder women and therefore it doesn’t feel like that should have been veered away from purely for the sake of being more feminist. Something that is very interesting is that there is no sexual content within The House That Jack Built except for one minor scene in which Jack fondles with a victim’s breasts prior to her murder. Even though Jack is touching her, it is not in a sexualised fashion, which is a breath of fresh air for those of us who are expectant that there is always a sexual element to the violence, which often makes a film unbearable to watch.
The House That Jack Built is not the blood-dripped, ultra-violent, traumatising spectacle that I expected from Von Trier, but it is a sophisticated slice of serial killer satisfaction. It does not defend the unspeakable crimes committed, and nor should it, because it’s designed to arouse the nation’s infatuation with the macabre that shrouds murderers. With an ending that delivers the audience a product of Hell itself, The House That Jack Built is a perfectly constructed home built from psychological horror and dark fascination.
Verdict: 5 out of 5