The House That Jack Built review: Lars von Trier’s most deadening film yet

The Danish auteur’s latest has been hyped as shockingly violent, but tension proves in short supply in this monotonous serial killer movie 

The House That Jack Built official UK trailer

Dir: Lars von Trier; Starring: Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Sofie Gråbøl, Riley Keough. Cert 18, 153 mins

Being a serial killer is a drag. That is one of the main insights from Lars von Trier’s morbid new feature.

Von Trier is one of the great European directors of the era, but here he boxes himself into a corner. Like all his films, The House That Jack Built is full of self-reflexive ideas and bizarre juxtapositions. One moment, we will be in the realm of Dante and Virgil, the next, we will see the murderer slit off the breast of one of his victims. We view cubist paintings alongside images of the killer trying to arrange corpses in a pattern that pleases him.

The House That Jack Built can’t escape from the grubby monotony of its protagonist’s way of life. Jack (Matt Dillon), or “Mr Sophistication” as he is nicknamed as his notoriety grows, starts and finishes the film looking completely fed up.

He never seems to have the right kind of bullet or car wrench. His killings rarely give him either the aesthetic or physical satisfaction he craves. He is suffering from both obsessive compulsion disorder and from the frustrations of a perfectionist artist always let down by reality. His victims bore and annoy him. When one woman (Uma Thurman) tells him he looks far too much of a wimp to be a serial killer, he struggles not to rise to the bait.

Dillon, the charismatic bratpack star of Rumble Fish and The Flamingo Kid, gives a performance stripped of colour and personality. He plays Jack as a repressed and introspective figure. True to the title, he is indeed trying to build a house. He’s an architect – a Frank Lloyd Wright-like figure never content with his own designs, who tries to express himself by murdering people instead.

Few of the other actors come out of the film well either. Thurman plays her character, a stranded motorist, as if she is in a screwball comedy, not a serial killer movie. Riley Keough, as the killer’s ill-fated girlfriend, features in possibly the creepiest and nastiest scene of all; Jack makes it clear he regards other human beings as merely raw material for his fantasies.

Von Trier has clearly steeped himself in true crime literature and documentaries. In his depiction of 12 years in Jack’s life, the Danish director draws on plenty of real-life detail about mass murderers of our time. Like Ted Bundy, Jack uses crutches to lull passers-by into thinking that he is harmless or vulnerable himself. Like Ed Gein, he makes knick-knacks out of human skin.

Between murders, and sometimes during them, Jack has long conversations with Verge (Bruno Ganz), a voice in his head. Verge’s exact status is hard to ascertain. At times, he appears to be the killer’s therapist and confidant. But he is also his tormentor, and his guide through hell.

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One inconvenient truth about a film being marketed on the basis of its nausea-inducing violence (and all the walkouts it prompted at the Cannes film festival) is that this is actually an experimental, low-budget affair. Its storytelling is so stylised that even the grimmest scenes don’t seem realistic – and therefore aren’t nearly as upsetting as the hype suggested.

Most of the killings here are of women, but Von Trier tries to deflect accusations of misogyny by pre-empting them. Jack is outed as a woman-hating psychopath. And he kills men, boys and animals too.

Like all of Von Trier’s America-set films (Dogville, Manderlay and Dancer in the Dark among them), The House That Jack Built was shot in Europe. Whether Jack is driving down small country roads or packing corpses into his refrigeration facility, we never feel that he is in the US. The film is set in the 1970s but, beyond occasional blasts of David Bowie’s “Fame” on the soundtrack, there is little to indicate the period.

Dramatic tension is in very short supply. Generally, serial killer movies are made from the point of view of the detectives hunting the criminals down. Audiences will see events through Clarice Starling’s eyes, not those of Hannibal Lecter. Here, though, events unfold from Jack’s perspective.

The killer is perhaps intended as the director’s own alter ego. Von Trier is riddled with strange compulsions and preoccupations. “I’m a serial neurotic, a hypochondriac, and I’m frightened of everything I can’t control,” the director once said of himself. The same description could be applied to Jack.

Occasionally, The House That Jack Built is funny in its own dark and deadpan way. Von Trier relishes combining banality (cars breaking down, weapons not working) with evil. He seems to dare viewers to laugh at events that could not be crueller or more bleak. At one stage, he throws in archive footage of the Nazis, as well as stock images of predators in the natural world.

But despite some laughter in the dark, The House That Jack Built soon begins to drag. Often, his jokes – if they are intended as such – fall flat. Lasting two and a half hours, this is neither a conventional crime drama nor a self-reflexive essay film. It is, instead, the most deadening and dispiriting film that its director has yet made.

The House That Jack Built is released in selected UK cinemas on 14 December

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