The House that Jack Built

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The House that Jack Built (2018) starring Matt Dillon, directed by Lars van Trier, currently on Showtime.

It has taken me a while to get around to watching this film. Even after having seen it, even after paying close attention to the dialog and the scenes, even after getting the quick cuts, the flashbacks and the cultural references, I still don’t know how I feel about this movie.
I was aware of its history. The film premiered at Cannes. Midway through the film, the audience and the judges booed it and many walked out of the theater, not to return. Critics took either side of the aisle. They either hated it for its content and its subject matter or they defended it for its vision and its handling of the subject matter. Nearly everyone felt that Matt Dillon was amazing in the role and put in one of the best performances of his career.

Let’s talk about Jack.


Jack (Matt Dillon) is a serial killer. He is an engineer that wants to be an architect. He is a psychopath with the soul of an artist. The story unfolds with Jack telling a yet-unnamed person about five of his kills. This person listens to Jack’s tales and comments on them, pointedly saying that whatever he tells him, he’s heard it all before.

Incident 1 deals with a pushy and obnoxious woman, whose car has broken down. The woman is portrayed by Uma Thurman. Although Jack takes her to a repair shop where a friend of his tries to fix her broken car jack, she berates him and treats him like the hired help. In some ways, her death seems warranted as she is ungrateful and nasty.

Jack is the owner of a defunct pizzeria with a large walk-in freezer. That’s where he keeps the bodies of his victims. She, like others, will be posed and photographed. There is a door on the other side of the freezer that Jack has been unable to open. Keep that in mind.



Incident 2 shows us what happens when a widow allows someone claiming to be a policeman to come into the house without showing a badge. He strangles her and stabs her in the heart. Here, his OCD takes over and he tries to clean up the scene but is stopped from leaving. He keeps envisioning that there is a bloodstain that he has missed. We see his mind show him lifting a chair or a lamp and finding blood under it. Of course, there is none. But he can’t be sure. This is somewhat reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s short story, “Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl”, in which a murderer goes on a cleaning rampage to hide his crime before the police arrive.

That doesn’t happen for Jack. A police officer comes to the house to look for the woman, to no avail. In the end, he is able to leave, but drags the body of the woman back to his freezer. He leaves a trail of blood that would surely get him caught, until it rains, washing it away.
Incident 3 is the one that made the audience leave. You’ll have to judge it for yourself.

Incident 4 is the dispatch of his “girlfriend” who he refers to as “Simple.” Here, he not only kills here, but he gets a little “Jack the Ripper” on her, leaving a piece of her on the police car outside her building.

He has sent some of those posed photos to the newspapers. He calls himself “Mr. Sophistication.”

Incident 5. He kidnaps several men and lines them up in the freezer. This is done in such a way that a full metal jacket bullet could be fired at one end and pass through all five heads, killing them all in one shot.

First, the bullets he bought are normal hunting rounds, not full metal jacket. After he procures one bullet (that’s all he needs), he finds that he is too close. He cannot focus the gun properly. That is when he applies more torque to the unopened door. He opens it.
This is the start of the climax of the film. I’ll go no further from here.

The film is full of flashbacks. Jack’s childhood is referenced. We see Jack playing Hide and Seek in the tall reeds. We see Jack listening to the men using scythes to harvest the field, their rhythmic breathing being something he likes to hear. It is the breath of the meadow. We see him cut the flippers from a duckling and putting it back in the pond. He talks about never getting caught for anything awful he did.



There are shots of Glenn Gould, a famous pianist that Jack admires. He is shown highlighting his explanations with cards bearing words he uses, much like Bob Dylan does in the film of “Suburban Homesick Blues”. He shows admiration for the policies of Stalin, Hitler, Mao, etc. and their efficiency. There are artistic discussions about film negatives. Jack talks about how the photos he takes are not as important as the negatives. There is a major reference to classic literature. And a discussion about Goethe’s Oak in the middle of Buchenwald Concentration Camp.

Throughout the film, Jack tries to build a house of his own, but is met with defeat each time. Cinder blocks give way to wood. Wood is tried at least three times without success. Another design is tried but is fruitless. In the end, he does build his house with “materials that will not fail him.”

Matt Dillon is amazing in the role of Jack. He moves blandly from incident to incident, killing with little thought for his victims. He is in it for the art. This is especially true in the dreaded Incident 3. Not to say that Dillon’s portrayal inspires sympathy. It doesn’t. But he carries the psychosis well and makes you believe that the man is a monster just by his words. His deeds are horrific, but his justifications and vision make them far worse.



There is little sympathy for his victims as well. They either seem to deserve it or stumble foolishly into it. I was often left with the thought that if the victim were nicer or smarter, they may have been around for the closing credits. But that also is in doubt.

The film is about two-and-a-half hours long. I believe that it is destined to be a “right-of-passage” film for the audience and will take its place beside others, like “Pink Flamingos” and “Eraserhead”.

It’s going to take me a while to process this one. There is a lot to take in. Feel free to talk among yourselves, or with whoever you’re telling your story to.

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About Ernie Fink

Ernie Fink has been a fan of film, mainly in the genres of horror and mystery, in equal parts, for over fifty years. His love of horror in the cinema begins with "King Kong" and in literature with Edgar Allan Poe and Bernhardt J. Hurwood.  With mysteries, he skipped from the Hardy Boys right to Hercules Poirot, only to find John Rebus and Harry Hole waiting in the wings. He has been known to read subtitles extensively, and rarely leaves a theater until the lights come up.
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