You probably have heard about the hundred attendees who ran out of the world premiere of Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built at the Cannes Film Festival. The film was described as “vomitive”, “vile”, and “disgusting”. Clearly, they must have never seen a gory film before, because there is nothing in this film that Bloody Disgusting readers don’t see during breakfast.
Matt Dillon plays the titular Jack, an engineer who wants to be an architect – who also moonlights as a serial killer during the 70’s. The film is structured as a look back at five murders in the span of 12 years, as Jack recounts the moments that defined his development as a serial killer to a man named Verge (Bruno Ganz, whom we only see during the epilogue).
The answer to your question is yes, there are some brutal scenes of gory murder in The House That Jack Built. The first chapter deals with Jack’s first victim, played by Uma Thurman, who keeps confronting Jack and joking about him looking like a serial killer as she insists on him giving her a ride to a mechanic to fix her car. Von Trier doesn’t go for subtlety or coyness, he doesn’t merely suggest violence, but captures absolutely everything on camera in gory fashion. Jack’s victims get their heads smashed in, body parts cut off and turned into wallets, made to watch their loved ones get brutally murdered – all shot as matter-of-factly as possible. Von Trier’s Dogme 95 movement is used to excellent results as the film is made to look almost documentary-like, with real footage of brutal murders.
A lot has been said about the film’s use of violence against animals and children, and The House That Jack Built is as ruthless and cruel as you’ve heard. There are scenes that will make your stomach curl, particularly a scene involving a young Jack and a baby duck, and one where Jack hunts a terrified mother and her two kids, showed with extreme close-ups (that being said, my screening at the Sitges film festival went nuts with cheers when the children died).
The House That Jack Built is not just a deliciously gory film, it may also be Lars von Trier’s funniest film to date.
We learn early on that Jack has obsessive-compulsive disorder, and during the second chapter, the film veers off into a pitch back Coen brothers-style almost sketch comedy sequence in which Jack’s OCD kicks in and makes him return again and again to the living room of a woman he just strangled to death (Siobhan Fallon Hogan, almost reprising her Men in Black role). Dillon’s Jack gets ready to leave, until he gets the itch that he left a bloody fingerprint under a rug, or a small pool of blood behind a painting, and we see him go back double and triple-checking for anything he missed. Another instance is when Jack attempts to execute several victims at once, and is disappointed when he realizes he bought the wrong kind of bullet.
Matt Dillon is fantastic as Jack, who starts off being your stereotypical deadpan, off-looking psychopath. Yet as the film progresses, and Jack begins to have more self-confidence, he becomes reckless and starts taking more risks. Dillon nails the change, and his performance reflects this by becoming wilder, more dangerous, yet also more absurd in an almost Jim Carrey-as-the-Mask performance.
As any von Trier films, The House That Jack Built also goes into some really sketchy politics, especially involving the female characters of the film. Lars von Trier appears to be showing this film as more autobiographical than any of his previous work, addressing his own egotism and narcissism, while also kind of addressing his own misogyny. The latter he does by displaying some really sadistic violence against women (at one point, Verge asks Jack why he only seems to kill women). There’s also some problematic use of clips from his own films during a monologue about “great art” that is intercut with literal footage from Nazi rallies and concentration camps.
The House That Jack Built doesn’t justify its 155-minute runtime, and it skips over some important parts of the story like any explanation as to why Jack became a killer, but its deadpan comedy, and matter-of-fact scenes of violence, and its comment on nihilism make this a dark comedy to rival the good seasons of Dexter, and even American Psycho.