Jack is a serial killer. As he reminisces about some of the kills that stand out most in his mind, we learn more about this meticulous and highly intelligent man. He isn’t your typical serial killer, and each victim reveals something different about Jack. After twelve years and countless victims, has his reign of terror finally come to an end, or is it just the beginning?
Writer and director Lars von Trier (Antichrist, Melancholia) brings audiences a fascinating character study with The House That Jack Built. Often times, audiences don’t want to know the backstory behind the serial killer, but in von Trier’s film this is the basis of the entire plot. By examining five specific murders, the audience learns important aspects of Jack: who he is, why he kills, and his other eccentricities. The main difference between von Trier’s film and similar works is that he doesn’t teach the audience about Jack with the intent of gaining sympathy for the character. If anything, as we learn more about Jack, he becomes a continually more loathsome character. He is truly a horrible person; and yet, somehow, the more you come to hate this man the more fascinating he is to watch at work.
The plot is broken up into segments, each one featuring a specific murder that was significant in Jack’s life. Some of these segments also include further flashbacks in order to add more context to Jack’s actions. While this is very interesting to watch and offers an in-depth look into the mind of a sociopathic serial killer, the part of the film that stands out the most is the fact that Jack has OCD. He is obsessively compelled to clean which can be a bit troublesome for a serial killer, especially when murders get messy. In one scene, after completing a murder and cleaning up the evidence, Jack keeps imagining he has missed a spot of blood somewhere in the crime scene. It forces him to go back inside over and over and over again to clean and make sure he didn’t miss a single spot. The scene is both humorous and entirely nerve-wracking, as the longer he stays at the scene of the crime the more likely he’ll be caught. This kind of morbidly dark humor is sprinkled throughout the plot and is usually intertwined with the most tense moments, breaking up the otherwise gloomy story with an occasional laugh.
There are two potentially controversial aspects of this fill, aside from the fact that it’s about a serial killer. First, the film is built upon several instances of brutal violence towards women. It can be triggering for people, and many audience members will likely leave the film thinking von Trier is a woman-hating monster, just like Jack. While that may or may not be true, the violence towards women also feels authentic to the plot. Serial killers tend to commit unspeakable acts, and they tend to carry out those acts on one sex more than the other; just look at the Green River Killer and Ted Bundy. It adds an authenticity to the film, but it will undoubtedly still make some people despise it. The other controversial or polarizing aspect of the film is the climax. I won’t go into too much detail to avoid spoilers, but the climax takes quite a turn from the rest of the film. It moves towards a more fantastical, less realistic style that viewers will either love or hate.
The House That Jack Built is packed full of stellar performances from the entire cast. What really brings the film to an elevated state is the portrayal of the titular Jack by Matt Dillon (Wild Things, Crash). Jack is calm and collected when he isn’t experiencing one of his obsessive compulsive cleaning fits, yet he is absolutely disturbed at the same time. Dillon is entirely believable as this deranged serial killer. His performance is especially chilling when he goes from his usual stoic state to abruptly enraged and frightening when things don’t go quite the way he had planned (which happens much more than he would probably like). Other memorable performances come from the unfortunate women playing his victims including Uma Thurman (Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill), Siobhan Fallon Hogan (Men in Black, Funny Games), Sofie Gråbøl (The Killing, Flickering Lights), and Riley Keough (It Comes at Night, Mad Max: Fury Road).
One aspect of the film that adds beauty and gore to the experience is the practical effects. The effects start out relatively small, though still displaying a high level of brutality. It lends itself to the authentic feel of the murders. However, as Jack’s kills becomes more elaborate and more disturbed, so do the effects. The gore becomes more and more maniacal leading up to the shocking final act. From here the practical effects take on a strange and surreal tone, but they are still quite unsettling to look at. The gore, the plot, and even Jack himself become more and more bizarre right up until the end.
The House That Jack Built is all at once a stunning and unhinged character study of a serial killer. The plot snowballs from a relatively simple tale into something much different by the time we see Jack’s fate. The practical effects are used in a way that moves the audience through this journey from raw and real to fantastical and absurd. Dillon’s performance is one of his strongest yet as he brings Jack to life. This film will no doubt polarize audiences for a number of reasons, including the violence towards women and the strange turn the film takes at the end. I’m even unsure of how I truly feel about the film, despite being able to appreciate its artistic attributes. Whichever side you will land on, the film is definitely worth watching at least once.
OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10