Lars von Trier has never been a director to shy away from controversy and he’s not about to start now. The House That Jack Built is a brutal, psychological horror film starring Matt Dillon in the title role of Jack, a highly intelligent serial killer, following over the course of 12 years in the 1970s and 1980s in the U.S. state of Washington. Von Trier has described the film as “celebrating the idea that life is evil and soulless.”
The film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May, marking von Trier’s return to the festival after more than six years. It was released on 28th November 2018 for one night only in the United States to polarizing reviews from critics. Not only that, it appears that the film’s distributor, IFC Films, is facing sanctions by the MPAA movie ratings board for screening an unrated director’s cut without getting the appropriate waiver, as Hollywood Reporter states here. As I said earlier, controversy is never far away from Lars von Trier.
So, what can we expect this film?
We follow the story of Jack’s development into a serial killer through his own eyes, experiencing the murders from his point of view, and how he believes they are a work of art. As the police draw inevitably closer to catching him, Jack takes 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 unseen Verge (Bruno Ganz)—possibly a delusion, could be his psychiatrist, we don’t know at this point—whom it seems Jack is doing his best to impress but failing. Prior to production, von Trier spent years researching the psychology of serial killers, and it’s said to be abundantly clear in The House That Jack Built, especially with regards to the dialogue that von Trier has written in the context of Jack’s obsession and ego.
The film was originally planned to be an 8-part television series but plans changed and it was whittled down to a 155-minute film for the general release. If the critics’ reviews are anything to go by, this may be a blessing in disguise—the brutally realistic depiction of the humiliation, torture and the violent murder of women, children, men and cute little ducklings is not something most people want to endure over and over again.
But it’s not just the gruesome nature of the film that is getting people talking. Von Trier has a notorious reputation for his mistreatment of women both on and off screen, and there is no denying that this film depicts the female victims in a poor light, with their characters portrayed as simple sex objects, or so annoying that they deserve to be killed. However, considering three of the leading female actresses in The House That Jack Built have worked with the director previously; Uma Thurman (Nymphomaniac), Siobhan Fallon Hogan (Dancer in the Dark, Dogville) and Sofie Gråbøl (The Boss of It All), it appears that they understand the deeper nature of what the director is trying to get across here.
Yet still, the critics’ reviews couldn’t be further apart on the spectrum, with many leaving the showing in disgust at the Cannes premiere, commenting that it was pure misery porn akin to a snuff film. Equally, it is being applauded for its audaciousness and dark humour, with many comparing it to the style of the Coen brothers and calling it von Trier’s American Psycho.
You won’t have to wait too long to decide for yourself, when the edited R-rated version is released in selected theatres and on digital platforms beginning 14th December in the U.S. and UK.