Culture

Fathers, sons and snow blowers

BEIRUT: It would be easy to describe “In Order of Disappearance” as Norwegian Tarantino. While not incorrect, the comparison overlooks quite a lot that’s charming in Hans Petter Moland’s 2014 film that has nothing to do with the director of “Pulp Fiction.”It would also ignore the interesting journey that took Tarantino’s bloody soup of villainy and comedy from its Los Angeles kitchen to the modernist dining rooms of Oslo.

Modernist interiors are among Moland’s locations, but much of DP Philip Ogaard’s photography is preoccupied with Scandinavia’s snow-bound outdoors, and country roads in particular. That’s appropriate, since grim-faced protagonist Nils Dickman (Stellan Skarsgard) pilots a snow blower for a living.

After a few Nordic establishing shots, the film opens with Nils and his missis, Gudrun, preparing for an award ceremony. A Swede by birth – Nils’ surname is the source of great amusement among the Norwegian-born male characters – Dickman has been named his village’s Citizen of the Year.

With snatches of Dickman’s acceptance speech as score, the camera transports us to a nearby airport, where a young baggage handler nears the end of his shift. A pair of thugs bundle him into the back of a van where his friend, Finn, has been beaten and hogtied. While one thug pumps a syringe into the baggage handler’s arm, Finn escapes into the night. The next morning the thugs, “Jaap” and “Ronaldo,” deposit the baggage handler’s corpse on a metro station bench.

Nils and Gudrun are informed their son Ingvar has died of an overdose. While at the morgue to identify the body, Dickman tells the attending cop his son was no addict and demands to know what the police plan to do about his death.

In the first of several vignettes of law enforcement ineptitude, the cop glares, shrugs and ultimately looks the other way.

Dickman finds a way out of despair when Finn surfaces to explain that he’s responsible for Ingvar’s murder – having stolen a bag of cocaine from the local drug ring that employed him. Dickman demands his contact’s name. The story begins in earnest.

Kim Fupz Aakeson’s screenplay follows the protagonist as he improvises a way to avenge his son’s murder. He commences with Finn’s contact in the organisation, the wiry miscreant Jaap, who carries a gun but appears never to have been punched in the face before.

Dickman wraps his corpse in chicken wire and propels it over a waterfall – a nicely shot scene reminiscent of the opening sequence of Roland Joffé’s “The Mission.” It’s a thoughtful disposal technique, one he repeats several times.

As Dickman works his way toward the top of the criminal food chain – and various villains begin their own bloodletting campaigns – Moland pauses the action to insert a sombre black intertitle with a cross (or star), the deceased’s name and (in the case of the Norwegian thugs) gangster nickname. Each intertitle is scored with a snippet of male chant, creating an incongruous comic counterpoint to the grim business at hand.

Though it’s true that traces of dry humor laced hard-boiled fiction and film noir, Tarantino has been credited with increasing the mob picture’s dosage of banal comedy (and gore). “Reservoir Dogs” was a long time ago, and Tarantino’s international progeny have been busy adapting his genre hyperbole to non-American stories.

Some of the most hilariously violent gangster pictures to emerge this century include the work of South Korean writer-director Hong-jin Na. While many value “The Chaser,” 2008, as a more balanced work of cinema, Tarantino himself would be hard pressed to match the mixture of action choreography and pitch black humor of Hong’s “The Yellow Sea,” 2010.

Among the most intelligent (and funny) post-Tarantino U.S. gangster films to emerge has been “Seven Psychopaths,” by the Anglo-Irish writer-director responsible for the much quieter 2008 effort “In Bruges.”

Moland and Aakeson’s work is closer to Hong’s in that the narrative (and attendant comedy) hinges on a shiftless and incompetent police force – unwilling to step out of the squad car to dispense a parking ticket, likely to barf at the sight of a corpse and, as demonstrated after the film’s climactic Mexican standoff, likely to burst into tears.

In its characterizations and visual style “Disappearance” is a highly polished work. The film’s most despicable villain, “The Count” (Pal Sverre Hagen), is a pony-tailed vegan based in a palatial modernist palace in the suburbs. He’s festooned the Norwegian pine with some comically tasteless contemporary art. One wall-sized bookcase is adorned with sculptures of hands.

The narrative engine of “Disappearance” is family, specifically the relationship of fathers and sons. Ingvar’s murder drives the revenge tale. It gathers pace with the introduction of The Count’s efforts to father his little boy, Rune, and a second mafia lord’s relationship with his own son.

While forcing his henchmen (and son) to consume glasses of fresh-squeezed carrot juice, The Count tries to juggle the demands of his Danish ex-wife, who wants sole custody of Rune, and those of the drug empire he shares with a local franchise of the Serbian mafia (whom he insists on calling Albanian).

The head Serb is the diminutive Papa (Bruno Ganz), and when The Count assumes “The Albanians” are responsible for offing his underlings, he makes the mistake of having his boys kidnap Papa’s son Miroslav.

For a genre picture, “Disappearance” is an unexpected ride. Sad, hilarious, beautifully shot and ably acted, it’s certainly worth the price of admission.

“In Order of Disappearance” screens at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Sept. 5 at 8 p.m., part of the inaugural edition of the Norwegian Film Cycle. For more, see http://www.metropoliscinema.net

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 05, 2017, on page 16.

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