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Film / The House That Jack Built

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"If you feel like screaming, then I definitely think that you should."

Some people claim that the atrocities we commit in our fiction are those inner desires which we cannot commit in our controlled civilization, so they're expressed instead through our art. I don't agree. I believe Heaven and Hell are one and the same. The soul belongs to Heaven and the body to Hell.

The House That Jack Built is a 2018 Psychological Horror film directed and written by Lars von Trier, starring Matt Dillon in the titular role as well as Bruno Ganz as Verge in his final film role. The film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, and was released theatrically in November 29, 2018 in Denmark, with a simultaneous Video On Demand and theatrical release in America on December 6th, 2018 as a slightly censored cut — a full uncut version was released in June of 2019 and a physical release in February of 2020.

The film follows Jack, who has been a serial killer for most of his life and fancies himself an artist of sorts in his field. The movie centers on him retelling 5 "incidents" over a period of 12 years to the unseen Verge. At several points, Verge interjects to question Jack on his dark view of the world and his delusions of grandeur, leading to lengthy discussions about philosophy and ethics.


The film provides examples of:

  • Apathetic Citizens: Jack tells Jacqueline before killing her that she can scream however much she'd like-nobody will come to help. He even proves this himself by screaming loudly so that people in the other apartments and outside can all hear. Jack's right-no one responds.
  • Appeal to Flattery: Jack manipulates the old man in the bathrobe by telling him how he admires his hunting skills.
  • Art Imitates Art: The shot of Jack and Verge standing in a boat strongly resembles the painting "La Barque de Dante" by Eugène Delacroix, which was in itself influenced by "The Raft of the Medusa" by Jean-Louis André Théodore Géricault.
  • Asshole Victim: The first incident, due to the woman acting like an abrasive jerk who kept just egging and mocking Jack on before he finally snapped.
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  • Bad "Bad Acting": Jack lying to get into a victim's house, first claiming he's a police officer, then saying he's an insurance agent when that starts to fall through.
  • Bad People Abuse Animals: A scene from Jack's childhood shows him cutting a duckling's leg off with a pair of pliers, just to establish that he was a bad egg right from the beginning.
  • Bait-and-Switch Accusation: The man in the red bathrobe holds Jack at gunpoint claiming he knows all about his crimes. Turns out he suspects him of Bank Robbery. Jack is happy to go along with that.
  • Beard of Evil: Jack steadily grows one over the course of the various incidents, representing his lessening OCD as well as, of course, his increasingly callous and calculated approach to killing.
  • Big "SHUT UP!": The calm Verge eventually gets utterly fed up by Jack's philosophic waxing and self-pitying.
    Verge: Stop it! You Antichrist! I don't ever recall having escorted so thoroughly depraved person as you, Jack!
  • Black Comedy: Some of the murders have a comedic tone to them (namely, what happened to the nipples of Jacqueline) or when Jack drags a body across town with his car.
  • Boom, Headshot!: How Jack kills one of the children.
  • Bowdlerise: To get the movie an R rating in America, a few scenes were trimmed, notably the picnic scene where it doesn't show the bullets going into the kids, the scene with Jacqueline getting her breast cut off is cut just before Jack's knife cuts into her, and the scene where Jack compares art (showing Lars Von Triers' actual filmography) with Nazi imagery and calling both Honest Art. An unrated version was eventually released months after its initial release with these scenes intact.
  • Break the Cutie: Poor, poor Jacqueline.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Early on Jack notes about a locked room in the freezer which becomes a plot point towards the end.
  • Color Motif: Red for sin. Jack owns a red van and later wears a striking red bathrobe.
  • Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are: During the game hunt when Jack is casually whistling while looking for the wounded woman.
  • Cop Killer: Jack's last victim is a cop who tries to arrest him.
  • Creepy Souvenir: Jack made a wallet out of a female victim's cut-off breast.
  • Creepy Stalker Van: Jack owns one. Lampshaded by his first victim who notes that the van is the kind one might expect to be kidnapped in.
  • Dead Guy Puppet: After the third incident, Jack fashions Grumpy's corpse into forever smiling on instead. The smile on the corpse is not pleasant to look at.
  • Death of a Child: Jack murders two children in the film without remorse.
  • Deconstruction: Of the Diabolical Mastermind-type serial killer, a la Hannibal Lecter. Though Jack presents as Wicked Cultured and thinks of himself as an artist, he's otherwise a failure in every other endeavor, having to start over on trying to build a house for himself twice. The pretentious Hannibal Lecture statements he tries to make are constantly and effectively shut down by Verge, who he either ignores or feebly refutes. He's also just not very efficient when it comes to killing, breaking down during his murders and leaving plenty of evidence behind, and he only gets away with it because the police are incompetent or lazy, or through sheer dumb luck, like when it rains after he leaves a long blood trail from where he dragged one of his victims. This is very much Truth in Television for many real-life serial killers.
  • Deus ex Machina: After leaving a giant blood trail of his second victim, Jack is clearly troubled by what to do till it all of the sudden rains and cleans the blood trail. His conclusion is that God might just be on his side.
  • Disney Villain Death: While trying to scale the wall of Hell to reach Heaven, Jack falls off and into the stream of lava.
  • Distracting Disambiguation: When Jack announces to attempt a One-Hit Polykill with a full metal jacket, the last victim he brought in corrects him by noting that the bullet he is holding up is not actually a full metal jacket.
  • Everyone Has Standards: When Jack starts rambling, claiming that he does art and compares his "work" to other, according to him, "artists" (genocidal dictators such as Hitler and Stalin), Verge, who likely escorted all sorts of scum to hell, gets audibly angry and tells Jack that he's one of the most depraved human beings he ever met.
  • Evil Sounds Deep: Jack is monstrous to the core and has Matt Dillon's deep baritone voice.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Jack of course, especially during the last incident where he calls his 6 victims "gentlemen" while casually discussing his experiment. However, the affable facade drops rather quickly if things don't go according to his desire.
  • For the Evulz: Although Verge tries to give an explanation for some of Jack's murders (a childish desire to be caught, glory and fame), it seems that Jack simply does what he does because he likes it. The last incident he tells is about how he kidnapped 6 men to see if (inspired by the Nazis on the eastern front) a full metal jacket bullet could go through 6 skulls at once.
  • Four Eyes, Zero Soul: Jack, a remorseless serial killer who often wears glasses.
  • Framing the Guilty Party: Jack gets accused of Bank Robbery which puts the police on his tail for the real crimes.
  • Genius Ditz: Though he's obviously very intelligent and knowledgable, Jack often bumbles his way through his murders. Some of it has to do with his OCD, but he also makes a ton of fuckups that nearly get him caught.
  • Gorn: The second incident becomes this, thanks to the comically long blood trail left behind as he was dragging the victim along with his car.
  • Hannibal Lecture: Jack likes to give those, whether to justify that life is nothing but a shithole or to explain how people's deaths are necessary to create a work of art. Verge disagrees.
  • Hate Sink: Jack. The whole point of the movie is to show just how much of an irredeemable, sadistic and subhuman scumbag he is. He has zero redeeming qualities and he doesn't even have a sympathetic excuse behind why he murders and tortures people. There is literally nothing to like or sympathize about in him.
  • He-Man Woman Hater: Jack appears to prefer female victims, and most of his recollections portray them as gullible and easily manipulated. Verge calls him out on this, and Jack feebly defends himself by saying that he's killed men as well.
  • Hero Antagonist: By initially holding Jack at gunpoint to turn him over to the police, S.P. came to be the closest the film has for Jack before Jack manipulated him to put it down before knifing him. Verge however is definitely this, when it's revealed he came for Jack to ferry him to Hell for his sins. The black military veteran as well manages to delay Jack by noting that the bullets he got aren't actually full metal jackets, thus sparing them as he goes off for some, by which time the police arrive.
  • The Hero Dies: Jack admits to over 60 murders, but he is then sent to Hell for these crimes. As he's being sent there by Verge, Jack tries to escape to heaven via a broken bridge, but he fails and spends the rest of eternity in Hell.
  • I Just Want to Be Special: Verge accuses Jack of this, saying that he's just a depraved monster who wants to be seen as someone unique.
  • Jitter Cam: A trademark of the director. The handheld camera style adds to the film's realism.
  • Karma Houdini: Ultimately averted: attempting to escape Hell, Jack suffers a fate worse than the one he was supposed to receive in the Underworld.
  • Literary Allusion Title: The work takes its title from an old nursery rhyme.
  • Mad Artist: Jack’s view of art is... postmodern, to say the least. In his discussions with Verge, Jack outlines his philosophies about the value of decay in classical art as well as artisanal fields such as wine-making to justify his monstrous actions. Most tellingly, Jack lectures Verge on the iconic value of the German Stuka divebomber planes from WWII and expresses great admiration for the Nazis' atrocities (plus Communists') since in his view destruction is the greatest art, with it being a kind of creation itself. So they were the greatest artists who ever lived. This is the last straw that enrages Verge enough to cement Jack as the worst person he had ever ferried.
  • Narcissist: Jack is a clear example. Being an engineer, he desperately wanted to be an architect and fancies himself as an artist. Verge even calls him one.
  • Obfuscating Disability: Jack uses crutches to make himself look harmless.
  • One-Hit Polykill: Jack attempts this with his rifle and a couple of victims in the freezer but he never gets around to finish the experiment.
  • Onscreen Chapter Titles: A trademark of von Trier. The movie is separated into chapters which are introduced with on-screen title cards.
  • Police Are Useless: Played straight and even acknowledged in the movie. There are a few points in the films where the police could have maybe caught Jack but completely screwed up. In one scenario the cop could have saved a victim of Jack's if he had taken her seriously. They catch up with him only after someone else identifies Jack as the serial killer, and then he steals a cop car, which is left (siren blaring) right outside where his intended victims are held.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Jack gets away with many of his crimes because he commits them in plain sight without any hangups.
  • Sarcastic Confession: Jack openly admits to a cop that he killed 60 people, a number so ridiculously high that the cop ignores the statement.
  • Self-Deprecation: Many discussions for the film, both positively and negatively, have remarked on how much of a self-critique the film is for von Trier, with Jack himself being a stand in for the director and Verge representing the audience/critics who detest the cruelty he's shown in his work. Given how much Jack is shown to be a sociopathic narcissist who torments women with major delusions of grandeur all for the sake of his "art", this trope is in full effect here, and it's not helped by Verge name-dropping one of von Trier's films.
  • Serial Killer: Jack at the point where he had met Jacqueline, had apparently killed 60 people. It quickly turned to 61.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: Verge calls Jack out on his nihilistic and rather pretentious and self-pitying world-view several times, but to no avail.
  • Single Tear: Jack sheds one when watching the scythe scene in the Elysian Fields.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Jack likes to think of himself as a peerless, misunderstood artist whose work will be remembered throughout the centuries, but it's obvious both to Verge and the audience that he is nothing more than a sadistic monster with very little artistic talent to speak of.
  • Smug Snake: Despite presenting as The Evil Genius, Jack is ultimately a pathetic loser who's failed in almost every regard in his life, and can't even put up a good front when he's trying to worm his way into a victim's house. Though through the years, he learns from experience, he proves time and time again that just because he's intelligent doesn't mean he can't also be Stupid Evil.
  • The Social Darwinist: Jack's philosophy as expressed is partly something like this. He notes destruction is natural (comparing people with tigers and sheep, he being in the former) and thus dislikes religion for trying to hold back people's "inner tiger", wanting strong people let loose to destroy the weak. Jack's wish would be for humans to grow more into tigers rather than sheep. He discusses The Lamb and The Tyger poems by William Blake on this theme (his favorite being of course the latter). Verge is disgusted by this, calling him an Antichrist.
  • The Sociopath: Lampshaded by Verge, who calls Jack a psychopath; the symptoms are even shown onscreen.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: What blares at the end credits right after Jack falls into the deepest pit of hell for all eternity you ask? This.
  • Stock Footage: Quite a bit, usually of what consists of Glenn Gould playing on the piano, videos of cathedrals, hunting footage, Nazi propaganda and even select clips of von Trier's own filmography (of which includes everything from his first film to Nymphomaniac).
  • Stuka Scream: Jack admires engineering feat.
  • Super OCD: Jack suffers from this, which is why there's never a single drop of blood at any of his murder scenes.
  • Tempting Fate: The woman in the first incident drags on and on in detail about how she thinks Jack might be a serial killer and how easy it would be for him to kill her and hide her body, and starts poking the bear even harder by calling him a wimp. It ends exactly how you'd expect it to.
  • Title Drop: Verge's line "Wasn't Jack" going to build a house?"
  • Too Dumb to Live:
    • How Jack views his victims. Verge argues that he intentionally picks out these kinds of people or makes them look stupider in his recollections than they actually are.
    • The police officer who arrives at Jack's neighbor's house and just assumed that the neighbor had killed Jack without having seen his face and then lowers his gun before confirming that certainly fits the trope.
    • Jack himself, really. His murders are sloppy with no real preparation or forethought, which eventually leads the police right to him. At the end, he tries to climb along the extremely narrow rock face in Hell to get to Heaven, and he predictably falls into the cascading lava below.
    • The young boy who runs from cover into the open field, thus creating an easy target for Jack.
  • The Unfair Sex: Jack rants about the unfairness of his condition as a male to Jacqueline. Its effectiveness is slightly undercut by the fact that he has restrained and gagged her and has made it clear that he is going to kill her, however.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Verge at one point implicitly accuses Jack of being this, calling him out on how his accounts all seem to portray his victims as unintelligent and himself as smart, suggesting that he is altering the details of what really happened to make his murders appear more justified, if nothing else, then at least to himself. He also notices that all the stories Jack tells him is about him murdering women, asking him if he is trying to portraying himself as being superior to women, to which Jack feebly tries to protest that he has also killed plenty of men and is just choosing the stories he tells at random, claiming that it is just a coincidence that they all happen to be about women.
  • Villain Protagonist: To say that Jack is one of these is putting it lightly.
  • "The Villain Sucks" Song: Done in some fashion in the credits, which kicks in after Jack finally faces some form of comeuppance in getting sent to Hell for his crimes. The film, and by extension Jack, is then played out to the tune of "Hit the Road Jack".
  • Wicked Cultured: Jack has shades of this, having an affinity for Glenn Gould, Roman/Greek/German architecture and famous pieces of literature from such authors as William Blake. However, in reality, he's closer to Wicked Pretentious, coming across to Verge like he's trying to impress him.
  • Would Hit a Girl: Most of Jack's victims are women, with Verge suggesting he's a misogynist. He weakly denies it, saying he's killed men as well.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Jack kills a mother and her two young children in a twisted game hunt. Jack goes to the hunting tower, while the mother tries to hide the children behind cover. One of them runs off and is shot twice, very brutally, then the other kid gets shot in the head.


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