Film – The House that Jack Built

There are some films which incorporate a theme so seamlessly that they leave you astounded.  This film is one of those.  Some have said that it is a totally self indulgent piece of work, but I think that this could be that either the person watching it had no in depth knowledge of the “Divine Comedy” or they didn’t have the information to bring the all the themes together, as this film is not easy watching if you don’t know about the subjects used.  It doesn’t spoon feed the audience to reach a conclusion as it relies on them having a certain amount on knowledge.  Lucky for me they are all themes that I am really interested in, which made this such a superb visual experience.

This film was released in the UK in December 2018, so if you haven’t watched it yet and you don’t want spoilers, maybe come back to this article when you have watched it as I will be giving a break down of the film and drawing out the themes which can be seen within.

Jack (Matt Dillon) and Verge (Bruno Ganz) open the film as voice overs, talking, images of Glenn Gould playing the piano.  The narrative indicates that Verge and Jack are on a journey and that Jack will recount five incidents in his life that has lead him to the point of meeting Verge and their ongoing journey.

The first incident, Jack picks up a women who has a broken down car on the side of the road (Uma Thurman), he kills her with the broken jack from her car and takes her to an industrial freezer unit that he has purchased to store bodies in.  The broken jack could be instrumental to Jack’s frame of mind, an allegory for what the previous killings have done to him and what is yet to be seen.

At this point I am going to say that I am not going to go in to great detail of each incident, as I really want anyone who hasn’t watched the film to go and enjoy it, but what I will be doing is giving some pointers on how to interpret the overall piece.

I would say that there are heavy links between the women that get killed, and the 9 circles of hell.  Thurman’s character is sullen and untrusting of Jack, covering circle 5 as Jack kills her in a rage – circle 5’s sins are wrath and sullenness.

The second incident, Jack murders a woman in her home, and the elements of art and his OCD are brought in to play.  This incident has come real dark comedy in it as his clumsy attempts at killing the woman are so awkward they are funny.  Once she is finally dead, he positions her body so that he can take photos of it (him creating his art) before bundling her in a truck and obsessively cleaning her apartment.  His anxiety and compulsions leading him to believe that there is a hidden pool of blood somewhere that he has missed.  This is a subtle by important factor in understanding the characters mindset in the earlier killings, as he is methodical (if not good at what he is doing).

the prolonged incident, means that he runs into an inquisitive cop, but he avoids being caught.  Jack then ties the woman’s body to the back of his van and drags her to the industrial freezer.  This is a turning point, as it starts to rain, washing away the trail of blood from the dragging, moving Jack’s character from being a psychopath (which he believes he is) to someone with a God Complex, thinking that there is a higher power assisting him in his work, and that he is infallible.

Here I thought circle 3 of hell was entered as while Jack’s failed strangulation comes back at him, he tried to choke the woman with crumbled up donuts in water.  It also helped that she was quite a homely woman, which is potentially why his first strangulation attempt failed, because he neck was too wide for his hands to fit comfortably around.  He also enters her house through the 8th circle of hell… fraud, but you will need to watch the film to see that bit.

It’s a small but important thing to note that the freezer unit in the start of the film is very tidy, echoing Jack’s need to have things in order.  There are stacks of pizzas in order, and the bodies are shelved.  As the film goes on, Jack’s mind becomes more creative and less ordered and so does his methods and the freezer.  Everything you see if to reflect the characters mindset.

There is a bonus incident within an incident here, as Jack runs over an older lady, and he takes the strangled woman and the run over one back to the apartment that he was in to take more photos, and he gives himself a serial killer name of “Mr Sophistication”.  It’s an interesting name considering his first attempts at strangling the woman failed, and Sophistication means worldliness and experience.

This bonus incident is the 7th circle of hell – violence.  Ok you could say all the killings are violent, but Jack himself indicates there was no reason for killing the woman with his car, he was just overcome in the moment, making it a random act of violence rather than a premeditated one.

All the way through this, Verge and Jack continue the dialogue, drawing comparisons to art and Jack’s killings, utilising the theory of destructive art as a way to make something better.  I also really like how a parallel was drawn between God and an artist – the only two who can every really understand why something was created, in the same way that Jack will only ever be the one to truly understand why he was killing.

Incident three is probably the most haunting if you are affected by such things, as Jack details that he was at some point trying to live a normal life, with a wife and two sons (ages of about 8-11).  They are out on a hunting trip, and Jack explains that he has grown bored of hunting to one of the sons.  He then details how to clean and use the gun before shooting both boys.  The mother is hysterical, but Jack mocks up some bizarre picnic with the dead sons and now catatonic wife, putting one of the boys in to a smiling and waving position and calling him Grumpy.  He asked his wife what her favourite number is and she replies 12, he then shoots her, ending the scene with some odd still of the dead mother and boys in a frame made of stones, with many dead crows above their heads.  Grumpy later appears in the corner of the freezer unit like some ventriloquist’s dummy.

The link to this circle of hell, I think, is number 6, Heresy. Jack tried to live a normal life, but his demeanor is so at odds with it, that he goes against society’s norms and kills his family.

Verge and Jack discuss decomposition of bodies, but as Jack doesn’t know the process so he attributes it to the process that grapes go through to make dessert wine.  This is probably one of the best descriptions of the theory of destructive art I have ever witnessed, and if you watch this film for that alone, then I will be happy.

Incident four is possibly one of the hardest to watch as it plays on mental abuse and pushes Jack in to circle 2 of hell – Lust.  Jack in this scene is much more unhinged in is actions, calling Jacqueline (the woman) simple as a name.  Jack tells her he has killed in the region of 60 people.  He highlights her stupidity back to her, before drawing around her breasts as if to make surgical cuts.  She runs out of her apartment to a conveniently placed patrol car, who doesn’t believe her story that Jack has killed so many people, and even when Jack comes down and openly admits that he is a killer, the cop tells them to get off the street and stop drinking.  Jack locks Simple in the apartment before gagging her and making her pick the knife that he is going to work with.  You later see her breasts on a slab.

This is particularly interesting as Jack admits he had feelings for the woman, albeit he doesn’t say what feelings.  This takes him out of the ballpark for being a psychopath as he can have emotions towards his victims, and he also classifies himself as a psychopath, which Verge points out a psychopath would never do.  This really highlights the God Complex though as he was trying to make Simple better, and with the police ignoring him, enhances his feelings of infallibility.

Verge and Jack have a conversation about the art of killing and he likens himself to leaders that have committed genocide, once again pushing the God Complex as he feels what he is doing is beneficial and leading him onto the road of righteousness.  Verge calls Jack an antichrist.

Incident five, is really another comedy of errors and Jack’s ultimate downfall.  In the vein of genocide, he decides he wants to try killing a number of people with one bullet, and starts to collect men who he lines up in the freezer.  Leaving the men chained to a bar he goes off in search of a full metal jacket as this is the only thing powerful enough to go through the 6 mens heads at one time.  Jack has an argument at the gun store,  goes to try and clear his name with the owner, kills him, then kills a cop.  Stealing the cop car with the sirens going, he managed to get a full metal jacket, and leaves the car with the sirens still wailing outside the freezer, in the belief that he is so untouchable that no one will bother him.  This could be seen as the fourth circle of hell entered as his belief was that he was doing this to gain a better world and notoriety… or avarice.

As he is lining up the shot, Verge appears in the corner of the freezer and asks Jack what happened to the house that he was building.  It is revealed that Jack had big plans of making a grand house, but failed, only ever managing to make the supporting structure.  Verge encourages Jack to make another house, which he does out of the corpses within the freezer.

As he is building the corpse house, the police are trying to cut in to the freezer door, and as he finishes and sits in the house the police enter and shoot him.  The house therefore stands for the entrance to the nine circles of hell which Jack and Verge will now travel through.

As they enter the gates, they are in ankle deep water.  which they walk through and it comes up to chest height, making their journey into the underworld difficult.

As they come through this part, there is a window where Jack can see a golden field with a farmer.  Verge informs him that they are the Elysian Fields and they can’t have access to them (that being the resting place of the heroic).  Here, I will tell you (if you hadn’t already guessed that Verge is Virgil from Dante’s inferno and he is consigned to limbo – forever having to guide miscreants through the circles of hell.

Verge and Jack cross the river Styx in a shot which I literally got so excited about (I am all about the simple things sometimes, as it replicates one of the lithographs of Gustave Dore’s illustrations for Dante’s Inferno.

You will also note the attempt to make Jack look like Dante with his red dressing gown on, like the iconic red smock.


Verge and Jack then climb down a rock face which looks like it is made of limbs, and travel through.  As they go one Verge and Jack are still talking and it becomes clear that Jack really does feel that he is making his journey through the circles of hell to reach the higher plain of heaven and take up his rightful spot in the divine light.

They come to an area which has broken walkways which Jack must climb around to reach the final door out, it is a circular room with a fiery blaze at the bottom.  As Jack climbs around, he loses his footing, eventually making him fall.  The final shot of the film is the inferno turning white, like a negative of itself… much like the photos that Jack was taking of his murder victims… but what got me really excited was it also echoed the last circle of hell – treachery which is where satan is stuck in a lake of ice, making Jake satan and not the god that he felt he was.

There are other elements to this film which make the number 12 important on several levels, but if nothing else appreciate it for the biblical and godly reference i.e. Jesus had 12 disciples.

I thought the filming and dialogue was very clever.  It really takes a certain type of film to really draw me in and I have to say I was hooked to this one.  Originally this was intended to be a series, and you can definitely feel that with the separate incidents and the layout of the film, bu actually it adds to the mindset of Jack.

As the characters enter the actual circles of hell, the sound effects and visuals take a turn which makes this part of the film feel much more surreal, but it works so well.

In case you couldn’t tell, I really loved this film and I do urge everyone to watch it, as there are so many clever pieces to it that I could never dream of covering them all in this article and I would probably need to write a book on all the links and allegories that were used.

Have you seen “The House that Jack Built”?  Why not tell me what you thought in the comments?  Like this post?  Why not share it?


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