Posts Tagged ‘Jo Nesbo (O with a line through it)’

We’re in the middle of one of those funny, slightly unpredictable times of year, when you’re as likely to come across a tiny oddball sleeper release as something which has been produced and marketed as an aspiring blockbuster. As I say, it’s a product of the time of year: it’s too late for full-blown blockbuster season, but similarly too early for the genuine awards contenders to start making their appearance. So you do tend to get a lot of mid-budgeted genre movies of different kinds, and doing the rounds at the moment is the new Jo Nesbo (final O with a line through it) movie. Long-term readers (may God have mercy on you) may recall I was rather impressed by a couple of Nesbo adaptations which came out about five years ago, Headhunters and Jackpot. Those were both foreign language movies given a subtitled release over here, but the new movie is Anglophone. Directed by Tomas Alfredsen, it’s a grisly, hard-edged crime thriller, definitely not for children or the squeamish, entitled The Snowman.

(Hmmm. Something not quite right here, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Never mind, it’ll come to me.)

Oh well. Things get underway with a prologue of unremitting grimness, set in the wilds of Norway, setting the tone for the rest of the movie rather economically. Brightening this up a little is an English-language cameo from Sofia Helin, most famous outside of Scandinavia for her role as the detective with ASD from the TV show The Bridge: sadly, she is not in the rest of the movie.

We are then introduced to top Norwegian homicide detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender), who is – all together now – brilliant at his job but lousy at holding his personal life together. As the movie opens he is forever waking up in the park after a heavy night on the booze, which is not something to be done lightly in Oslo in the winter. ‘I need a case, I need to work!’ cries Harry when taken to task by his do-everything-by-the-book superior. ‘I can’t help it if the murder rate is so low,’ snaps his boss. Luckily, plenty of murders are just about to happen, so we can all breathe a sigh of relief.

Yes, someone is going about kidnapping and then murdering women in a quite horrific fashion, and leaving snowmen as his calling card. (It’s never made completely clear whether the snowman-building happens before or after all the dismemberment takes place; it strikes me as a rather cumbersome M.O. for a modern serial killer, but what do I know about these things.) Harry isn’t initially assigned to what’s at first believed to be a routine missing persons case, but he is friends with the officer who is (Rebecca Ferguson), and together they figure out what’s going on. But can they locate the killer before yet more women (yes, it is mostly women) meet a sticky end?

(Oh, hang on. I’ve figured it out.)

(That’s more like it.)

As I said, I was properly impressed and entertained by both the previous Nesbo (O with a line through it) movies that I saw, primarily by the cleverness of the plotting and the black humour running through both stories. Then again, it does seem that our Scandi cousins have a knack for this sort of thing – I’m not a big fan of the label ‘Scandi noir’ (or ‘Nordic noir’), but detective shows from Sweden, Denmark, and Norway have become something of a fixture on at least one UK TV network, and it seems to me that The Snowman is trying to tell the same kind of story in the same kind of way.

All the elements are there, I suppose – troubled family backgrounds, people keeping secrets from their loved ones, corruption in high places, gore – but the actual story just isn’t quite up to scratch. The Magic Wand of Improbable Coincidence gets waved over the plot fairly frequently, to say nothing of the way that the story digresses away from the serial killer plot and gets mixed up in shady goings on involving a prominent businessman (J.K. Simmons) and a bid for the ‘World Winter Sports Cup’ (I guess the Winter Olympics people took one look at the script and said ‘No way are you using our name in this!’).

The story gets lost in other ways too: there’s a bit of a cold case element to the plot (the killer has been at it for ages), and the film chooses to incorporate this by having a few flashbacks. I’m not sure these were strictly necessary, but even if they were, I think it was probably a mistake to centre them around a character played by Val Kilmer. Kilmer is not, to put it delicately, ageing gracefully, nor has his acting range improved – the fact that I’d got the impression from somewhere or other that he had actually died is neither here nor there. His appearance is, in short, rather a distraction.

Also problematic is the way that the film-makers don’t really seem to be content with making a good solid detective thriller – every now and then a scene comes along suggesting this movie wants to be a serious drama about the personal lives of Harry and those people around him. Well, Fassbender and his fellow actors are capable enough, but again the result is a film which lacks focus and often feels laborious on a thematic level – it’s clear from very early on that it’s largely about what it means to be a good (or bad) parent, but the script keeps grinding on about this, rather unsubtly.

I’m not sure there is a way to subtly depict various people having their heads literally blown off or body parts removed with power tools (the killer has a special gadget just for this purpose, I wonder if you can get one on Amazon), but if there is, The Snowman does not hit upon it. I would say this is a very strong 15, certificate-wise: there’s some proper gore and grue in the course of the movie. Personally, I am mostly desensitised to this sort of thing, but I am aware a lot of people aren’t – and there are horror-movie levels of splatter at times during The Snowman.

This is really a case of a movie which has all the right ingredients – good cast, interesting premise, strong set of genre conventions – but which fumbles putting them together. It’s watchable, but the story is too often unclear, and arguably not really strong enough to justify the various excesses of the film’s violence.

Then again, I suppose we should talk about the whole emphasis of a film like The Snowman. The treatment of women, especially attractive young actresses, is a talking point as I write, with an industry culture that seems to accept their exploitation and objectification increasingly coming under scrutiny. There is not, to my knowledge, any suggestion that the makers of The Snowman have been accused of any wrongdoing or suspect behaviour. But even so, this is a movie in which male-on-female violence is both graphic and endemic. Every major female character is a victim at some point or other; the only significant nudity in the film is that of a young, female actor, and it’s gratuitous. Which would be worse, I wonder, to be a serial abuser of women who makes films that are classy and morally unimpeachable, or a decent human being who nevertheless makes films which shows women primarily as sexual objects to be used and abused? It’s an artificial distinction, I know, but it seems to me that if you got rid of every grasping studio executive, along with all the others who exploit their position of power, you would still be left with a lot of misogynistic exploitation in the actual movies themselves. If the movies seem to have a problem with their treatment of women, it’s arguably because the fact we still buy tickets sends the message that this is what we really want.

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In the wake of Trollhunter, further proof (if any be needed) that they have a strange sense of humour up in Norway comes from Jackpot, a jet-black-with-splatterings-of-arterial-red comedy-thriller from Magnus Martens. I suspect that this movie owes its UK release to the substantial success earlier this year of Headhunters, another Norwegian crime movie with darkly comic elements. Headhunters was adapted from a novel by Jo Nesbo – Jo pronounced ‘Yo’, final O with a diagonal line through it – while Jackpot is based on an original idea by the same author. Does this difference show? Well…

With Christmas looming (good choice of release date, guys), the police on the Swedish-Norwegian border are presented with an interesting case when they come across the remains of a bloodbath at a sex-shop/strip club. The carnage has been so energetic that it’s quite difficult to work out exactly how many people died, and the presiding detective, Inspector Solor – diagonal line through the second O – (Henrik Mestad), is quite bemused. But then the hapless figure of Oscar Svendson (Kyrre Hellum) emerges from beneath the corpse of a deceased obese stripper, pump-action shotgun in hand, and once he is arrested there is at least the possibility of getting some answers.

Oscar tells a strange tale – his job is as a manager in a business employing ex-convicts, a trio of whom basically bullied him into joining a football pools syndicate with them. To everyone’s astonishment, they won over 1.7 million kroner (in proper money that’s nearly… ah… er… I’ll get back to you on that one) at the first attempt. Unfortunately, given the violently criminal past of nearly everyone involved and the heroic quantities of alcohol consumed in their celebrations, someone very soon realises that a quarter of 1.7 million kroner is all very well, but a third is even better… to say nothing of a half…

What follows is not subtle, nor does it attempt to be particularly suspenseful, and it really does give the lie to all this stuff in the media about the current influx of ‘Nordic noir’. Noir? In Jackpot, one character gets stuffed into a wood chipper while someone else gets shot in the head with a nailgun; I don’t remember either of those things happening in The Big Sleep. That said, the influence of recent American films like The Usual Suspects and the Tarantino canon is very clear.

Jackpot is frequently very funny indeed, although many of the most amusing scenes really require a strong stomach (that said, there is a very droll running gag about no-one involved being able to divide 1.7 million in their head). Hellum gives a rather endearing performance as a man totally out of his depth and the rest of the cast walk the line between comedy and drama with considerable aplomb, for the most part. And I have to commend any film with a soundtrack that concludes with ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’ – even if I have to knock points straight off again for it being a cover rather than the Slade original. Sometimes substitutes are simply not acceptable.

But it’s nowhere near as good as Headhunters, quite simply because that film had a Rolls Royce engine of a story where solid plot and characterisation meshed and played off each other pretty much perfectly. Jackpot’s story is more like the engine of an Audi Quattro, and no, I’m not going to pursue this metaphor in any more detail.

It’s very clear that Martens knew exactly the kind of atmosphere and pace he wanted for his film, with an ever-increasing spiral of horribly absurd and progressively more grisly events besetting the hapless Oscar. And this happens, more or less; the problem is that the plot isn’t supported by the characters, who are a pretty thin bunch in places. People do startling things just to keep the plot rolling forward, unheralded by any set-up in previous scenes – in our house this is called melodrama when it happens in a film which aspires to be serious. In a comedy… well, it’s just dodgy plotting. Halfway through, for example, one character turns out to have a previously-unhinted-at connection to Oscar, just because it’s necessary in order to give him a reason not to kill the hero. The film is well-made enough for this kind of thing to slip past in a not-too objectionable manner, but the end result is still a selection of great set-pieces strung together by a slightly ramshackle narrative.

I would stress the former rather than the latter when recommending Jackpot to a friend, though – it’s still much smarter, funnier, and better played than a lot of Anglophone films operating in this kind of genre. Definitely worth a look, but more for fans of Killing Zoe than The Killing.

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John Wyndham, when not inventing the English catastrophe novel, was occasionally wont to write wry little short stories with isn’t-life-quaintly-ironic themes. One of these, Oh, Where, Now, Is Peggy MacRafferty?, is about a young Irish girl who displays unsuspected guile and resourcefulness in order to achieve her dream of becoming a Hollywood actress. She succeeds largely because her background and character make her refreshingly different from all her rivals. Nevertheless, she is still sent off to the usual studio ‘finishing school’ in order that she can present herself appropriately to the public. And when the finishing school is over, she has been transformed into another cookie-cutter starlet, all traces of what made her so appealingly different expunged.

Wyndham was writing over fifty years ago, but the attitude he wrote about still persists today: Hollywood, rightly believing that audiences are always interested in seeing fresh new ideas and talent, scours the world for creative people and rewards them handsomely for working on big studio movies. But Hollywood is a business, and sees no need to change a profitable formula: so the fresh new ideas and talent of the imported creative people generally tend to get swamped by the same old formulaic movie-making they’ve supposedly been brought in to get away from. The number of people this has happened to is enormous: in recent years, John Woo, Sharlto Copley and Noomi Rapace, to name but three.

All this came to mind while watching Morten Tyldum’s new thriller Hodejegerne (English title Headhunters). This is a cracking little film, every bit as good as any American or British thriller I’ve seen in the last eight or nine months, at least, and much better than most.

Headhunters is a Norwegian film and therefore fair game for people currently making a fuss about ‘Nordic Noir’ – a name which I suspect indicates a greater fondness for alliteration than actual genre knowledge. At the risk of sounding a tad ‘I liked this band since waay before they were famous’, I’ve been quietly impressed by the Scandinavian facility for crime fiction since happening across the original Wallander‘s UK transmission back in 2009. All the recent fuss about these shows therefore leaves me with a vague sense of ‘been there, done that, knitted the sweater’. (Though I would thoroughly recommend The Bridge to anyone interested in promisingly bonkers thrillers.)

This is based on a novel by Jo (pronounced Yo) Nesbo (O with a diagonal line through it) and tells the story of Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), a high-flying Oslo recruitment expert. Roger is a very bright man with a somewhat atypical pathology and a diminutive stature. Because of the latter he constantly worries his wife (Synnove (O with a diagonal line through it) Macody Lund) is going to leave him, especially as she is very broody and he isn’t. In order to keep her affections he lavishes her with gifts beyond his ability to pay for them. However, luckily for Roger he has a second job, as a highly-professional art thief, but an averagely successful robbery isn’t even enough to help much with the mortgage.

Then he learns that Clas Greve (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau), a new client, is in possession of an immensely valuable ‘lost’ painting by Rubens – which should be worth enough to allow him to keep his missus in her accustomed manner indefinitely. Roger quickly makes plans to relieve Greve of the picture – but he has misjudged the situation in a potentially terminal fashion, and soon finds himself on the run from someone considerably more psychopathic even than him…

There’s something very pleasingly Hitchcockian about Headhunters, most obviously in the way the story largely boils down to being that of a man on the run, losing virtually everything he values in the process and forced into some horribly humiliating situations as he struggles to stay one step ahead of his enemies. The fact that Roger is an anti-hero rather than a genuinely good guy makes this much more palatable, as well as allowing space for some extremely well-handled character development. Aksel Hennie gives a terrifically nuanced performance as Roger: one point Roger seems to have achieved his heart’s desire, but then suddenly – and this manages to be completely startling and utterly logical at the same time – something happens which starts the unravelling of his world, and Hennie portrays this brilliantly. All the other performers are good, but it’s Hennie’s movie.

Of course, he’s allowed to do this courtesy of a tremendously solid script, which excels at dropping apparently casual details into early scenes which later turn out to be absolutely crucial to the plot. Every time I thought I’d spotted a plot hole, the screenwriters almost at once turned up with a fix for it. Not only is the story tightly-plotted and exciting, it also manages to be blackly comic in places and rather moving in others.

This being a modern Scandinavian movie, there’s some material here which Hitchcock was not allowed to put into his classic films, of course. I can’t imagine anyone outside the BBFC or the Daily Mail crypt has serious problems with nudity any more, but Headhunters is also properly grisly in places – I suspect this is towards the top end of a 15 rating in the UK – and features one scene which pet lovers will probably have considerable difficulty with: the payoff to this is a sequence so grotesquely bizarre and darkly funny it’s impossible to imagine it in a mainstream American film.

So how is it, then, that a low-budget Norwegian crime thriller manages to surpass most things produced by the big players in California, despite their working with much greater resources? I suspect the question answers itself. Low-budget Norwegian movies can afford to take chances and be creative with their storytelling, and they have to have smart scripts and good acting – if they want to stand a chance commercially, at least. The big studios, certain of their domination of the major markets, can afford to relax and turn out bland and formulaic thrillers with repetitive scripts and somnolent performances: I expect many people do like things to be comfortingly familiar, and some of them may have issues with subtitled films as well. Nevertheless I can’t help feeling a little sorry for them, and annoyed at the lack of ambition of most mainstream English-language thrillers. Headhunters is an example of how these things should be done: well worth seeking out.

(Since writing this I have learned that a Hollywood remake of Headhunters is already in the works. Sigh. – A)

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