Evil Is Art, Murder Is Art, Torture Is Art: On Lars von Trier's 'The House that Jack Built'

Matt Dillon and Bruno Ganz in The House That Jack Built (2018) (IMDB)

It isn't entirely irredeemable, but The House that Jack Built's familiar gimmicks say much more about Lars von Trier as a brand than as a provocateur or artist.

The House that Jack Built
Lars von Trier

IFC Films

14 Dec 2018 (US)


Lars von Trier's latest film has been gestating publicly for quite a while. After the mixed reception of his two-volume 2013 sex epic Nymphomaniac (not to mention the fury caused by his famous remarks expressing joking sympathy with Hitler at Cannes in 2011), his name had perhaps surpassed recognition as a critically beloved auteur and morphed into a simplified symbol of provocation and controversy.

Von Trier's films, spanning four decades, have always been groundbreaking both in form and content. Breaking the Waves (1996) starring Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgård, told a morally complex tale about a childlike Scottish woman while adhering to the fuzzy, low-budget aesthetic of the Dogme 95 movement he helped found in the '90s. Antichrist (2010) more than a decade later, followed Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe on a darkly surreal adventure through grief, death and chaos. Violence is central to both films, as is mental anguish and a sense of fatalistic existentialism. It's no surprise, then, that his latest effort, The House that Jack Built, doubles down on those themes.

The film's plot details have been out there for years, and in this case the anticipation that builds leads to a finished product remarkable in its visual audacity but unsurprising on a narrative basis. Like other von Trier films, The House that Jack Built is separated into chapters; in this case, the chapters correspond to one of the titular killer's (Matt Dillon) victims. The first is a woman (Uma Thurman) stranded on the road who begs Jack for a ride to the gas station. He begrudgingly does so, and she immediately mocks him for looking like a serial killer, even going as far as asking him what he'd use to kill her. Turns out there's a car jack in the front seat, and, well, he eventually uses it to bash her head in, fulfilling the prophecy.

Bruno Ganz as Verge, Matt Dillon as Jack (IMDB)

A bit on the nose? Maybe. The developments likely aren't meant to be unexpected, especially as Jack tells us (via self-aggrandizing narration, of course) much about his own psychopathy, quite straightforwardly, throughout the entire film. This isn't necessarily a problem, except for the fact that, as von Trier's comes into the twilight of his career, viewers are likely expecting more than a few well-shot but otherwise unremarkable murder scenes. For a man whose work has consistently broken new cinematic ground, serial murder, already a fixture in films everywhere, proves less impressive in action than it does as a bid toward all-out visual splendor.

Unsurprisingly, The House that Jack Built's visual elements are its strongest. Dillon's chiseled, aging face is disarming but creepy, provoking an inner sense of dread (his measured, occasionally comic performance has the same effect) and, like Panos Cosmatos's Mandy, released earlier this year, the vibrant blood reds make for a uniquely intense visual experience. Also interesting are the didactic bits of art history and philosophy, illustrated on screen with paintings and graphic renderings and delivered to us by way of Jack's ceaseless monologue. The same technique can be found throughout von Trier's previous work (notably in Nymphomaniac), and it again contains some of the more noteworthy sequences here. Yet in place of empathy or genuine curiosity, the animated sideshows do little more than attempt to validate Jack's, and by extension, von Trier's, philosophy of art. That philosophy is this: Evil is art. Murder is art. Torture is art.

It may be unfair to equate Jack's beliefs with von Trier's, but the film strongly hints at a direct relationship between the two. It's likely that von Trier has never killed anyone, and yet his private and public lives, both riddled with dysfunction, are isolating in the same way that being a psychopath would be. In films and in real life, many troubled boys and men turn to violence in order to find a sense of control and revenge. In von Trier's case, this is either a horrifying insinuation or a rather desperate bid toward controversy. Unfortunately for the filmmaker, it's pretty apparent which case rings true.


The House that Jack Built is controversial, of course, by virtue of focusing on a man who ruthlessly slaughters his own family and several others (namely, women) and attempts to hold it up as a masterful work of art. But even that controversy is easy to get past, simply because Jack's arguments are weak and self-serving. We all know, with the #MeToo movement well upon us, that abuse and harassment aren't tantamount to making great art and that the long-standing equation of art and suffering is a bogus one. Sure, terrible people have made great art. But Jack (to its credit, the film at least partially understands this) certainly hasn't. There are comic sequences that effectively offset Jack's heavy-handed musings, but they are too few and far between to save the film as a whole.

Some of what attempts to pass for comedy is purposefully cruel. Another one of Jack's victims is a young woman named Jacqueline (Riley Keough), who Jack calls "Simple" and verbally abuses. He toys with her for a while, outlining her breasts in pen and calling her dumb before she gets fed up and tries to leave. He traps her, admits to being the elusive serial killer from the papers, and — who would've guessed? — kills her by cutting off her breasts. (Later, when he tries to buy a gun, he uses one of her breasts as a wallet.) It's a provocative scene, but it's mostly a letdown. Keough, an increasingly acclaimed actress, gets little in the way of material and Dillon, doing what he can with a one-note role, simply repeats techniques from earlier chapters.

Women in The House that Jack Built are little more than toys for Jack to use to demonstrate his grand gestures, which is particularly disappointing considering the strong, nuanced performances von Trier has coaxed out of terrific actresses in the past. In this film, the only notable supporting character is Verge (Bruno Ganz), or Virgil (a name you might recognize from a The Divine Comedy, a clear influence), who talks and argues with Jack throughout the film but isn't seen until its last act. In the final scene, he leads Jack to Hell. It's visually marvelous, but in a sense it feels long overdue. It's almost a relief when, surrounded by the fiery pits, Jack falls. So too, it seems, has von Trier.






The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.