Cannes 2018: The House That Jack Built

Matt Dillon plays a serial killer in Lars von Trier's latest provocation, a film that's both shocking and an endurance test

Film Review by Joseph Walsh | 16 May 2018
  • The House That Jack Built
Film title: The House That Jack Built
Director: Lars von Trier
Starring: Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Sofie Gråbøl, Riley Keough, Jeremy Davies

Lars von Trier goes into neurotic freefall with his latest work, the ill-judged The House that Jack Built. We endure over two hours of self-loathing which, even for a director as notorious as von Trier, will test the patience of his most ardent fans.

Divided into five segments plus an epilogue, the tone of the film is kept perpetually cruel and nihilistic as we watch architect/engineer Jack (Matt Dillon in a career-ending role) murder five women and two children. It’s important to note that it’s only women that Jack kills, as Von Trier’s worrying agenda becomes clear.

The onscreen horrors are accompanied by a banal voiceover conversation between Jack and Verge, who turns out to be the Roman poet Virgil, played by Bruno Ganz. Their conversations range from Nazi architecture to Blake. Perhaps the worst involves a tree that Goethe once sat beneath, which now stands in the remnants of the concentration camp at Buchenwald. These schoolboy level readings of art and architecture reinforce Jack’s worldview and justify his murderous actions. The coup de grace of awfulness must be when Jack bemoans being born a man, and how hard it is – tone deaf doesn’t quite cover it.

The murders are designed to shock, and they do, but these visceral horrors are not what makes The House That Jack Built such an endurance test. As horrible as it is to watch as Jack slices off a woman’s breasts, it is the conversation beforehand that reveals the ugliness of the film. Jack is sitting with a woman he’s dubbed “simple”, played by Riley Keough. For what feels like hours he repeatedly nags her, telling her how stupid she is before pulling down her top and marking out where he will make the cuts. It is simply grotesque. Equally horrifying is when Jack performs taxidermy on a small boy he has shot, giving him a grim, carnivalesque smile.

No doubt von Trier’s latest film will garner much attention, and the ink that is spilled attesting to its horrors will inevitably cement the desire for many people to find out for themselves. There will be those who seek to pick the film apart, perhaps dissecting it in order to pronounce it a magnificent work of art. It would be time wasted. Don’t let your curiosity get the better of you, it’s a house build on sand; let it crumble.

The House That Jack Built had its world premiere at The 2018 Cannes Film Festival – for more Cannes coverage, click here

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