I have a confession to make: I’ve never actually seen a Lars von Trier movie before. I’m well aware of his legacy and the controversy that tends to surround him, but I just never really had an interest in seeing his movies. Not out of protest or anything, but none of the premises ever struck my fancy. However, the concept behind “The House that Jack Built” somehow managed to draw me in. So how was my first Lars von Trier experience? Bizarre to say the least.
“The House that Jack Built” follows Jack (Matt Dillon) as he recounts five separate incidents where he murdered someone. Each incident is a self-contained story, but is intended to represent Jack’s evolution and storied career of murder.
First of all, the thing to know about the current release of this movie is that it is the R-rated version of the film. You can currently see this movie in theaters and VOD, but in the US you’ll only be able to find the R-rated version. There is a director’s cut of the movie that exists in other countries and will release in the US next year. The director’s cut has about two extra minutes of footage that shows some of Jack’s kills in much more gruesome detail and has some additional disturbing content. So if you want to see the complete Lars von Trier experience, you may want to get your hands on that version. If you don’t care about the edits, I feel like this movie is still totally worthwhile.
While the murders may not be as violent in this version of the film, the crimes are no less tense. Each scenario doesn’t rush to a kill, instead it takes its time to explore who Jack is and how he rationalizes what he does. The film is perfectly content to let things sit and for characters to quietly wander from one thought to the next. However, the movie never feels slow or plodding. Matt Dillon is absolutely engrossing as Jack, so no matter what he’s doing he’s fascinating to watch.
In almost every incident we get to see Jack attempt to be human or put on a facade as he meets his victims and then we see that personality quickly dissolve away as a he slips into his natural state of bitter disdain for his victims. But Jack also has brief flashes of guilt and remorse for what he has to do and that forces Matt Dillon to display an incredible amount of range in short bursts. It’s great to watch and Dillon’s performance alone makes this movie a must see.
Dillon is also surrounded by strong actresses like Uma Thurman, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Sofie Grabel, and Riley Keough. Their roles are brief in the film, but they’re such wildly different characters and their dire situations allow them to really get extreme with their performances.
One of the stranger things about the film, though, isn’t the killing. The film features short vignettes between each killing where Jack talks about some topic tangentially connected to murdering. For example, there’s a section where he talks about art and World War 2 fighter planes. They make sense in the context of the film and you can see their connection to what’s going on, but they’re also extremely jarring. They remind me of Metal Gear cutscenes where two characters are talking about a subject over stock footage of animals and nature. And that’s exactly what happens in the movie. Having not seen previous von Trier movies I don’t know if this is a common feature for him, but it was an odd thing to have thrown at me and it took me a minute to get used to them. However, by the end I thought they were some of the more engrossing elements of the movie.
But that’s definitely not the only bit of oddity that one could wring out of this movie. Without spoiling anything, there’s a good portion of this movie where the artistic creativity is unleashed. Not only are there animated sections, but there are stunning moments that look like Renaissance paintings come to life. The visual change may take some out of the picture and I do question their inclusion, but there’s no denying that they are absolutely beautiful.
I think in its current state this film is still a must see. Some would say that this R-rated version is the watered down version and in terms of disturbing imagery, they are right. However, knowing what’s in the director’s cut and having seen this movie I don’t feel like I missed out on anything impactful. As is this movie carries a lot of weight and the depravity is still there without all of the gore. If you feel like you would have a better experience watching the unrated version than I encourage you to wait for its release. At the end of the day, I believe this is a film that should be experienced by people in whatever way they can as soon as they can.