'The House That Jack Built' Spoiler Review: A Deep Dive Into 2018's Most Polarizing and Controversial FilmDecember 3, 2018
(In our Spoiler Reviews, we take a deep dive into a new release and get to the heart of what makes it tick…and every story point is up for discussion. In this entry: The House That Jack Built.)
It’s been five years since Lars Von Trier released Nymphomaniac, the bold and astonishing two-parter that figuratively put a period (or exclamation mark, if you rather) on the end of his filmography. Where does a provocateur like Von Trier go from there? What else is left to say? The answer is The House That Jack Built, a deranged, pitch-black comedy (yes, really) that explores the life of a narccisistic serial killer, played by Matt Dillon (again: yes, really).
As is typically the case with Von Trier, the story is far more thematically complex and layered than that short synopsis might suggest, and every bit as unsettling and occasionally brutal as you might expect. But is the director’s cut – which screened in theaters for one night only – as controversial as some have claimed?
Major spoilers to follow.
In predictable Von Trier fashion, The House That Jack Built is divided into chapters – or, as they’re presented here, “incidents.” Dillon’s Jack narrates the story, recounting five “random” incidents that serve as a sort of serial killer portfolio or highlight reel. The first involves a woman (Uma Thurman) who flags Jack down on the side of the road to enlist his help with some car trouble. The woman is somewhat obnoxious and insistent on making Jack go out of his way to help her out, joking at one point that she shouldn’t be in his van because he could very well be a serial killer. Jack kills her with the broken jack from her car, ditching her body in a special walk-in industrial freezer he’s purchased for body storage.
The second incident sees Jack knocking on the door of another woman (Siobhan Fallon Hogan), where he clumsily – and hilariously – delivers some half-baked story about how he’s a cop who can help her out with her dead husband’s pension. That story quickly crumbles, but the woman is intrigued by the prospect of more cash, so Jack seizes on that angle and claims to be an insurance representative. The woman invites him in and he strangles her, but as it’s his first time doing so, he fails to keep his hands around her throat long enough. She wakes up, and he offers her some water with crumbled-up donuts in it, in an attempt to make her choke to death. In what has quickly become a comedy of errors, this plot doesn’t work, so he strangles her again. This time, he succeeds. He repositions her body and takes photos before stuffing it in the van.
Jack’s obsessive compulsive tendencies and anxiety over cleanliness only prolong this incident, which sees him returning to the house multiple times to clean every surface – believing that there’s some hidden pool of blood he’s not seeing. After a brief and awkward encounter with a snooping cop, Jack hurriedly ties the woman’s body to the back of his van and drags her across the concrete behind him, all the way back to his freezer. There’s sort of a bonus incident in here, where Jack successfully strangles another woman and, on the way home, runs over an old lady – taking her and the strangled woman back to the latter’s apartment to pose them for photos, since he wasn’t satisfied with the photos he took after the strangulation. It’s around this time that Jack gives himself the serial killer moniker “Mr. Sophistication.”
The third incident finds Jack attempting to live a somewhat “normal” life, dating a single mother and her two young sons, whom he takes on a picnic trip out to a field. There, he explains that he no longer enjoys hunting, but still lectures the kids on proper gun usage before shooting and killing all three of them. He takes one of the dead sons and, working against rigor mortis, arranges his body so he’s smiling and waving. Jack calls this one Grumpy and sets him up in a corner of the freezer like some hilariously grotesque imaginary friend.
Incident four is the most disturbing of the five: Riley Keough plays Jacqueline, the only woman Jack ever came close to feeling anything about. He calls her “Simple,” and when he visits her place he hobbles along on a crutch – Ted Bundy-style – to make himself appear non-threatening. After coaxing Jacqueline to open up about her insecurities, he exacerbates them by calling her names and drawing around her breasts with magic marker. Following a failed escape attempt, Jack lures her back into the apartment, where she realizes he’s cut the phone line. Jacqueline fails to escape again, and Jack cuts off her breasts with a knife. This scene is admittedly exceptionally difficult to watch and may be the reason for so much of the controversy around the film; there is something so specifically misogynistic and horrifying about cutting the female parts of a woman’s body – and Von Trier knows this better than most, lest you forget that scene in Antichrist.
The fifth and final incident sees Jack comically scrambling to locate and secure a full metal jacket round of ammo. He has detained six people and tied them to a makeshift post, lining their heads up in a row with the intention of killing them all with one bullet. Only a full metal jacket round is powerful enough to do the job. Jack actually doesn’t succeed in this mission; in his haste, he grows sloppy, killing a cop and stealing his car, which he leaves – perhaps intentionally – outside his freezer space. It’s unclear how Jack dies, but he finally succeeds in prying open a door at the back of the freezer that’s always been stuck shut. That door essentially leads him to hell.
Throughout the film, Jack hasn’t exactly been narrating; he’s been telling his story to an unseen man named “Verge.” Verge is short for Virgil, as in the ancient Roman poet who leads Dante through the various circles of Hell in the meta-text Inferno, by Dante Alighieri. It may be interesting to note that Inferno was merely the first part of Alighieri’s epic 14th century poem Divine Comedy – a title that could aptly describe The House That Jack Built, at least in Von Trier’s imagination. Given that this is Von Trier’s first film post-Nymphomaniac, it’s easy to imagine it being the first in a series, thus drawing a parallel between the Danish filmmaker and Dante.
Von Trier’s film isn’t shy about its connections to Inferno, many of which are rather overt. Alighieri’s epic describes hell as the realm “of those who have rejected spiritual values by yielding to bestial appetites or violence, or by perverting their human intellect to fraud or malice against their fellow men.” But the experience of trudging through the nine circles of Hell is intended as a potentially redemptive one, in which the guilty party recognizes and reflects upon their sins and makes their way toward God. During the film’s epilogue, titled “Katabasis” (a reference to the Greek word for a downhill descent), Verge guides Jack down through the realms of Lower Hell. There is a brief intermission scene, in which Von Trier nods to paintings of Charon – the ferryman of Hades – with a slow-moving tableau of Jack and Verge on a boat.
When they reach the bottom – or close to it – they come upon a broken bridge. On the opposite side, where the bridge once ended (before Verge’s time, he cutely notes) is a stairway to Heaven, where Jack may find redemption after all. Jack breaks from Verge here, and attempts to scale the rocky walls to the other side, but ultimately fails – perhaps because his intentions were not pure, but selfish – and falls into the depths of Hell.
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