USA in the 1970s. We follow the highly intelligent Jack over a span of 12 years and are introduced to the murders that define Jack's development as a serial killer. We experience the story from Jack's point of view, while he postulates each murder is an artwork in itself. As the inevitable police intervention is drawing nearer, he is taking greater and greater risks in his attempt to create the ultimate artwork. Along the way we experience Jack's descriptions of his personal condition, problems and thoughts through a recurring conversation with the unknown Verge - a grotesque mixture of sophistry mixed with an almost childlike self-pity and psychopathic explanations. The House That Jack Built is a dark and sinister story, yet presented through a philosophical and occasional humorous tale.Written by
The 'Iceman' mentioned by Jack was contract killer Richard Kuklinski who committed over a hundred murders for organized crime syndicates. Like Jack, Kuklinski often kept the bodies inside a freezer for a while to make the time of death impossible to ascertain, a habit that earned him his infamous nickname. See more »
When Jack cut's off the leg of the baby duck, you can see it's real leg, bent in his palm. See more »
You know, I take it all back, what I said earlier about you looking like a serial killer. No, no, no, you don't have the disposition for that sort of thing. You're way too much of a wimp to murder anyone.
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An R-rated version exists alongside the unrated 'director's cut'. The UK/Irish release is of the unrated version, as confirmed by the press invitation. See more »
Ostensibly a psychological horror/serial killer film, in reality, the latest from professional provocateur Lars von Trier is more a dark comedy about the nature of art, capped off with a quite literal descent into Hell. As much an interrogation of his own dark psychology as an "up yours" to his detractors and the oft-levelled accusations of misogyny, von Trier all but dares you to be offended, whether by the violence done to a duckling, the cold-blooded murder of children, the verbal degradation of a woman, the critique of the #MeToo movement, the celebration of Albert Speer, or the mockery of American gun culture. Partly self-reflexive, the film is more of an apologia than an apology for von Trier's oeuvre. When he's really on his game (Breaking the Waves (1996), Dancer in the Dark (2000), Dogville (2003), Melancholia (2011)), von Trier is capable of depicting horrific violence alongside psychologically complex characters and scenes of devastating emotional veracity. House, which is far too long and tends towards self-indulgence, doesn't come anywhere near those heights, and is thus more open to accusations of empty provocation, but von Trier has definitely tapped into "something" here, and, love it or hate it, you will react to it.
As the film begins, we hear (but don't see) a conversation between Jack (an emotionless Matt Dillon) and "Verge" (the always superb Bruno Ganz) as Jack attempts to defend and justify his serial killing. Choosing to discuss five random but illustrative "incidents" over a period of twelve years during the 70s and 80s, the subsequent film is divided into six sections ("1st Incident", "2nd Incident" etc., and "Epilogue: Katabasis"). A wannabe architect whose mother forced him to be an engineer, Jack, who suffers from OCD, contends that his murders are literal works of art, and has given himself the moniker "Mr Sophistication". And that's about it as far as plot is concerned, although it certainly wouldn't hurt to be at least partially familiar with the work of William Blake and the Inferno book of Dante Alighieri's Divina Commedia.
The film was originally developed as a TV miniseries by von Trier and Jenle Hallund, who has a "Story By" credit on the final film. Premièring out of competition at Cannes 2018, it was the first film in Cannes history to feature a warning on the tickets (for "scènes violentes"), and at the much-publicised première, over one-hundred people walked out, although those that stayed gave it a ten-minute standing ovation. Particularly galling to some viewers has been the scene where a young Jack (Emil Tholstrup) cuts off a duckling's leg, places it back into the pond from which he took it, and watches it drown. PETA, however, defended the film, praising the fact that it draws attention to the link between adolescent animal abuse and adult psychopathy, and for the realistic special effects.
To begin parsing the film, one first needs to look at the character of Jack himself, specifically his lack of emotional interiority. Call it sociopathy, call it an inability to empathise, whilst there's definitely an intellectual core (seen in the many digressions he and Verge take concerning art and the nature of the artist), Jack is emotionally dead. Although we see him practising various emotional states in the mirror, he does this so as not to stand out when in the company of others, and the only real emotions we ever see from him are irritation and anger, and even they are rare. Irritation is confined mainly to the 1st Incident, where he gives a lift to a woman whose car has broken down (Uma Thurman), and gradually gets more and more vexed as she goads him - telling him he looks like a serial killer but is obviously way too much of a "wimp" to ever actually kill anyone. Anger is mainly seen in the 5th Incident, when, right as he is about to murder a group of men tied up in the industrial freezer he uses to store bodies, he realises he has been sold hollow point bullets instead of full metal jackets, prompting an infuriated trip to the gun store and a hilarious berating of the owner, Al (Jeremy Davies).
It is, of course, impossible to ignore the parallels between Jack and von Trier himself. Although Jack is not a 1:1 surrogate, it's hard to deny the analogy of how Jack feels the need to one-up himself with each murder, becoming more and more sadistic as he goes. This, of course, has become a very common criticism of von Trier's filmography. He has also been accused of misogyny and of exploiting the psychological (and often physical) suffering of his actors, just as Jack is a misogynist who exploits the suffering of his victims. And this isn't subtext. Rather, von Trier himself makes the connection explicit when a discussion of genocide and tyranny features a montage of scenes from his own filmography.
As with Nymph()maniac, the film is structured around a conversation between two people, with frequent digressions to topics often fairly tangential to the main narrative. So whilst Nymph()maniac gave us treaties on fly-fishing, parallel parking, and the Fibonacci sequence, House features discussions concerning viticulture, the oak tree in Buchenwald, cathedral architecture, and the dichotomy of predator and prey (via a rather simplistic comparative analysis of Blake's "The Lamb" (1776) and "The Tyger" (1794)). One especially interesting digression is a monologue where Jack laments the fact that men are the defacto villains of every situation. Being set in the 70s and 80s, there's no specific mention of #MeToo, but it's obvious where the invective is aimed. Coming across like a slightly more unhinged Jordan B. Peterson, Jack has no time for debates concerning gender fluidity or sexual misconduct, even going so far as to suggest that women are more cooperative murder victims because they're "easier to work with." You can all-but hear Rose McGowan blowing a gasket!
Aside from the aforementioned duckling scene, by far the most disturbing scene is the 4th Incident. Here, we are introduced to Jacqueline (an excellent Riley Keough), whom Jack has been dating for a while. What is most distressing about the scene is not how Jack kills her (although it's far and away the most graphic death in the film), but what precedes her murder, as Jack mercilessly verbally belittles her, calling her by the nickname he has given her, "Simple", because he believes she is so unintelligent. He then takes great delight in revealing to her that he is Mr Sophistication, suggesting that she scream; the futility of which he demonstrates by shouting out an open window, "no one will help you." It's a devastating scene, far more emotionally upsetting than it is physically violent, and because of that, it's one of the best scenes in the film, provoking a genuine emotional response in the viewer beyond mere disgust.
As unsettling as this scene is, the film can also be extremely funny, with the entire 2nd Incident playing out like an extended Key and Peele (2012) sketch. Trying to gain entry to a woman's (Siobhan Fallon Hogan) house, Jack does a hilariously bad impression of a policeman, explaining, "I don't have my badge with me because I'm getting a promotion", and then cheerfully waving to a passing driver as if they are best friends. Once inside, he only manages to kill his victim at the third attempt, and then, having left the house, his OCD compels him to return three times to check for blood splatters in such places as behind a picture on the wall and under the leg of a chair. Finally, to get away from the cops that have shown up, he ties the body to the back of his van, pulling it along the road, and leaving a blood trail from the house to his industrial freezer, only for it to start raining and erase the blood.
I'd be remiss here if I didn't mention the extraordinarily beautiful epilogue, wherein Jack and Verge descend to hell ("Katabasis" is the Ancient Greek word for "descent"). This incredible sequence starts with a stunning repurposing of Eugène Delacroix's La Barque de Dante (1822), and culminates in a Hell that's equal parts Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and Zdzislaw Beksinski.
However, the film is far from perfect. For starters, it can be incredibly self-indulgent. It's also unnecessarily long, and there are stretches which are extremely tedious. I'm also not sure that a clip reel of von Trier's own films was the wisest choice. Additionally, the female characters, by the very nature of the narrative structure, are empty shells who exist only to be murdered. We may feel a degree of sympathy for them (especially Sofie Gråbøl in the 3rd Incident), but only Jacqueline has any degree of psychological verisimilitude. Some of the digressions concerning art and its relationship to love and hate are also (perhaps intentionally) juvenile and intellectually vapid.
Whilst it could be argued that House is about a desensitised world indifferent to suffering, it seems to be more about Lars von Trier and the criticisms that have been levelled against him over the years. Although he doesn't seem willing to apologise for anything, he is more than happy to defend, attempting to use the depiction of violence so as to facilitate introspection, reflecting on the importance (or lack thereof) of morality and culpability in artistic creation. House is an especially self-reflexive and somewhat self-disdainful film, which Von Trier has intimated may be his last, and if that is so, it certainly makes for a fittingly provocative and confrontational final word.
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