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The House that Jack Built

R18: Graphic violence, sadistic cruelty and sexual violence

Spoiler alert

This page outlines how the classification criteria were applied. We do our best to discuss the content while avoiding spoilers, but please avoid reading this information if you do not want to learn anything about the content of this movie.

About the film

Set in 1970s America and taking place over a twelve-year period, Lars Von Trier’s The House That Jack Built focuses on the five killings that helped define engineer and would-be architect Jack, as a serial killer. The film is narrated by Jack who converses with Virgil, the Roman poet and author of The Aeneid, as the two analyse and interpret Jack’s killings as performance art in terms of psychology and sophistry.

Jack is a self-confessed psychopath who suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The viewer accompanies Jack on his journey into madness, which results from his attempts to build the perfect house and to elevate his serial killing to the status of Art. The film makes extensive use of historic, cultural, literary and artistic references. Works by Blake, Gauguin, and Picasso are featured, as are children’s cartoons, gothic and contemporary architecture, and music by Vivaldi, Dylan and Bowie. Images of war atrocities, and hunters and their trophy animals are also used.

Poster for the film, the House that Jack Built

Date registered: 04/12/2018

Classification criteria: Horror, cruelty, and violence

The film is dominated by horrific acts of graphically and realistically depicted violence and cruelty, including an extreme act of sexual violence. A sense of dread is created by the viewer’s knowledge that Jack is going to kill. Most of Jack’s victims are women and he is overtly misogynistic, a fact noted by Virgil and denied by Jack. The level of cruelty and violence increases as the narrative progresses, and most of the killings are drawn out to focus on the fear of the victims and Jack’s disturbingly psychopathic behaviour. These include graphic depictions of choking, grievously mutilated bodies, bodies which have been manipulated in a demeaning and dehumanising manner (e.g., posed using wire, sticks, and duct tape), and psychological torture.

Some of the killings have blackly humorous elements. For example, after a botched killing Jack apologises to his victim profusely and puts a pillow under her head. He panics, crumbles some donut into tea and pours this into her mouth, before choking her again. However, the level of cruelty remains high throughout the film, and culminates in a graphic and sexually violent murder, during which he makes misogynistic comments about how women are always the victims and men are always the criminals, claiming that men are the real victims.

There is also a lengthy montage of extremely strong colour and black-and-white imagery showing war atrocities and other real-life cruelty and violence accompanied by Jack saying the people responsible for these acts, and the acts themselves, are iconic. This is followed by an equally harrowing but fictional montage of images from films, including by Von Trier, showing murders, and a woman giving birth to a fully-grown man. Other images show dead and dying animals and an act of animal cruelty when the young Jack, who looks around 10 years old, catches a duckling and snips its leg off with secateurs. This is graphically yet quickly shown with a brief shot of the duckling struggling to swim. There is no focus on the duckling’s pain.

A woman in the passenger seat looks at a man as he is driving.

Decision summary

The House That Jack Built is the latest self-indulgent arthouse film from provocative director Lars Von Trier, known for mixing extreme violence and horror with stunning imagery, to disquieting and shocking effect. The film is clearly intended for adults and its use of classical and contemporary art, architecture and music indicates a niche audience; generally the imagery and symbolism are not readily accessible.

The graphic and sadistic nature of the murders and the extreme level of cruelty involved is likely to be traumatising to audiences of all ages. The depictions of murder are drawn out, highly realistic, and often focus on the fear of the victims and the cruelty with which they are treated. The film will be strongly disturbing to children and teenagers who are unlikely to be equipped with the intellectual tools to distance themselves from the content or to interpret the film’s complex meaning. This is particularly true of the scenes involving the murder of children, the sexually violent murder of Jacqueline and the images of real life cruelty. While the film's frequent use of voiceover analysis, even during the killings, its intercut vignettes of unrelated imagery and its surreal ending have some limiting effect on the stronger depictions, this would be unlikely to reduce the impact on younger audiences. Although adults are also likely to find the film difficult to watch, they are likely to be able to contextualize it and to understand its often blackly humorous tone.

Contact the Information Unit if you require further information on a classification decision.

R18 label
R18: Graphic violence, sadistic cruelty and sexual violence