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Film / The House That Jack Built

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"If you feel like screaming, 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 on November 29, 2018 in Denmark, with a simultaneous video-on-demand and theatrical release in America on December 6, 2018 as a slightly censored cut; a full uncut version was released in June 2019, and physically in February 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 from the late 1970s into the 1980s 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:

  • Appeal to Flattery: Jack manipulates S.P., 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 bitch who kept just mocking and egging Jack on before he finally snapped.
  • 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: S.P., 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 with 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!
  • Bittersweet Ending: And an extremely bitter one, at that. Verge is revealed to be the poet Virgil, who's come to take Jack to Hell for his crimes, and Jack has been recounting the incidents to Verge as they explore it together. The two eventually come to a broken bridge overlooking the deepest part of Hell; on the other side is a staircase that Verge implies leads to Heaven, and Jack attempts to reach it by traversing the nearby rock face, despite Verge's warning that no one has ever successfully made it. Sure enough, he loses his grip and plummets into the molten abyss below, where he'll no doubt receive a punishment far worse than whatever was originally intended for him. It doesn't change the fact that Jack has killed over 60 people, but at least his victims finally have justice.
  • 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. Jack's ultimate fate ends up this way too thanks to some deliberate Soundtrack Dissonance.
  • Break the Cutie: Poor, poor Jacqueline.
  • Breast Attack: Jack slices both of Jacqueline's breasts with a knife, then plops one in a police car windshield and crafts a wallet with the other.
  • 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.
  • Bystander Syndrome: Invoked and discussed by Jack, who incentivizes Jacqueline to scream for help (to no avail) and then rambles about the fact that nobody cares she's in danger.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Early on Jack notes about a locked room in the freezer which becomes a plot point towards the end.
  • Climb, Slip, Hang, Climb: Jack when trying to pass the chasm in the underworld. It doesn't end well.
  • 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.
  • Continuity Cavalcade: A meta version. When Jack starts discussing the depiction of suffering and atrocities in art, as he ponders that it might be a way for people to express things in fiction that civilization prevents them from doing in real life, a series of clips of particularly gristly moments from Von Trier's previous works plays, namely The Element of Crime, Medea, Riget, Breaking the Waves, Dogville, Antichrist, Melancholia, and Nymphomaniac.
  • 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.
  • Deadpan Snarker: A lot of the commentary Verge delivers on Jack's stories and asides is quite dry and sarcastic.
    Jack: Do you know Blake's poems? ...About the lamb and the tiger?
    Verge: I do know Blake superficially. (sighs forebodingly) ...But I'm afraid I won't escape a comprehensive tutorial.
  • Death of a Child: Jack murders two children in the film without remorse.
  • Deconstructed Character Archetype: Of the Diabolical Mastermind-type serial killer, a la Hannibal Lecter. Though Jack presents himself 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 Lectures he tries to give 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 dragging one of his victims along a country road. This is very much Truth in Television for many real-life serial killers.
  • Deconstruction: To Von Trier's own movies. It's easy to see Jack as a stand-in for Lars, with his pseudo-philosophical and pessimistic diatribes, and his attempts at coming off as an artist but in reality being nothing more than a pretentious, woman-hating, edgelord nihilist whose points are successfully countered by Verge, representing the audience and/or the critics of his films. Ultimately, Jack put little effort into any effective rebuttal except continuing to be increasingly pretentious in his depravity and coming up with excuses for doing so.
  • Dehumanizing Insult: Jack takes to demean Jacqueline for being what he considers a Dumb Blonde by referring to her with the derisive nickname "Simple".
  • 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 a 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 a wall to reach a staircase leading out of Hell, Jack falls off and into the stream of lava below.
  • Distracting Disambiguation: When Jack announces to attempt a One-Hit Polykill with a full metal jacket, the last victim he brought in, a soldier, corrects him by noting that the bullet he is holding up is not actually a full metal jacket. Much to his annoyance, Jack realizes that the guy is right.
  • 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. In the last incident, he tells us 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 knowledgeable, Jack often bumbles his way through his murders. Some of it has to do with his OCD, but he also makes a ton of fuck-ups 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.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Downplayed. When Jack slices into Jacqueline's breast with a knife, the first few seconds of his attack are shown on-screen, before the camera mercifully cuts away to the outside of the apartment building. Arguably, it makes the whole scene even more disturbing. It also doubles a downplayed Scream Discretion Shot, as Jacqueline starts screaming loudly in pain, despite being gagged, and her scream ends also being somewhat muffled by the camera cutting away.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Impersonating an Officer: Jack attempts this at one point and does such a decidedly horrible job at it that he backpedals and says he's actually an insurance agent.
  • Insane Equals Violent: (Averted) While Jack does lacks empathy, he is not insane in the traditional sense. Unlike most other serial killers on screen Jack is lucid and fully aware of what he is doing, which makes his crimes all the more heinous.
  • 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.
  • Leitmotif: David Bowie's "Fame" is used as one for Jack, frequently playing when he collects newspaper clippings of his crimes or admires his growing collection of human corpses.
  • 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 dive-bomber 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.
  • Mask of Sanity: Jack at one point admits to Verge that he probably is a psychopath, noting that he never really felt or understood the concept of empathy, and he had to spend a lot of time learning how to fake it in order to better fit in with normal society. As he explains this, a montage of Jack practising various facial expressions in a mirror plays.
  • 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.
  • Neat Freak: Jack is obsessed with cleanliness, to the point where Verge strongly suspects that he has some kind of OCD. In the second incident, he has severe problems making his escape from his crime scene, because he has several intrusive thoughts about investigators possibly finding any blood splatters he might have left behind, so he sticks around and cleans the place several times over.
  • Nightmare Face: Grumpy, after Jack gets done performing surgery on his face to create a Slasher Smile.
  • 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 finishing 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.
  • Psychopathic Manchild: Verge speculates this to be the case with Jack. He's not far off. Jack has a rather childish mentality wrapped up in supposed depth and intelligence and has tantrums when things don't go his way.
    Jack: For example, hide and seek. In the case of hide I always chose to run in near panic into a field of reeds to hide.
    Verge: I see something other than a scared kid. I see a kid with a more mysterious goal. The choice of the dash through the reeds was an escape but also an open invitation to the pursuer because of the clear path of broken reeds left behind. Was there an element of "come and catch me" in you as a child? Or perhaps, more importantly in you as a person?
  • Refuge in Audacity: Jack gets away with many of his crimes because he commits them in plain sight without any hang-ups.
  • Sarcastic Confession: Jack openly admits to a cop that he is a serial killer and that he has killed 60 people, a number so ridiculously high that the cop ignores the statement.
  • Self-Applied Nickname: Jack takes to calling himself "Mr. Sophistication," and even writes several anonymous letters to the media with this moniker.
    Verge: "Mr. Sophistication"? Of course. Your narcissism knows no bounds.
  • 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.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Jack pretends to be injured to earn Jacqueline's pity recalls Ted Bundy doing the same thing with some of his victims, and in the same incident, the police officer not believing her when she tries to tell him that Jack is a serial killer is likely one to one of Jeffrey Dahmer's victims nearly escaping only to be returned to him because of the officer's incompetence.
    • Several times throughout the movie, there is a shot of Jack in front of his red van parked in an alleyway in the storage area where his storage freezer is, showing him holding white cards with black text written on them which he would drop the facing card for another one with another bit of text as he discusses a topic. This is a callback to the music video for "Subterranean Homesick Blues" by Bob Dylan, which features Dylan holding cards with the lyrics for the song which he would drop in time to his singing voiceover. The setting in the music video is also an alleyway in a warehouse area.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: Verge calls Jack out on his nihilistic and rather pretentious and self-pitying worldview several times, but to no avail.
  • Signature Move: Downplayed. Jack uses several different methods to kill people over the course of the film, but that said, he does appear to get somewhat of a special kick out of strangling people to death with his bare hands.
  • Single Tear: Jack sheds one when watching the scythe scene in the Elysian Fields. Most likely, he's mourning the loss of the single moment of peace he knew in his life, knowing he would never experience it again, but promptly stops when he recalls his grisly crimes.
  • 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 with him being in the former) and thus dislikes religion for trying to hold back people's "inner tiger", wanting strong people to 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 (which includes everything from his first film to Nymphomaniac).
  • Stuka Scream: Jack admires engineering feat.
  • Stupid Evil: A lot of Jack's failures as a serial killer come from him trying to be as unconscionable as possible and trying to make his murders into works of art. By the end, he leaves a trail of bodies behind and has an outburst at the gun store owner for giving him the wrong bullet, which leads the police directly to him. He only gets away because Verge escorted him to Hell.
  • Surrounded by Idiots: Jack certainly thinks as such, especially when said idiots are women. In reality, this trope is discussed and deconstructed by Verge. Jack certainly likes to think of himself as a Diabolical Mastermind who gets away with his crimes because he's intelligent, but in all likelihood, he's an Unreliable Narrator who's just painting everyone around him as stupid or lazy to accentuate his own supposed brilliance, when in reality, he's prone to plenty of fuck-ups and only gets away either because he got lucky or due to the authorities being incompetent.
  • 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 reach a staircase leading out, 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, saying that everyone is always quick to blame men, even if they have done nothing wrong. Its effectiveness is slightly undercut by the fact that Jack is much very guilty of several horrid crimes, 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 portray 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.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: The woman in the first incident, who keeps egging Jack on and pressing his buttons until he finally snaps. She becomes his first victim and ends up setting Jack down a very dark path.
  • 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".
  • Waxing Lyrical: As he walks with Verge, Jack complains that he has a sour taste in his mouth. Verge dryly asks him "You want me to show you the way to the next whiskey bar?"
  • 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.