Trying to assign a genre to Hans Petter Moland’s fourth collaboration with (under-rated legend) Stellan Skarsgård is tricky. It segues effortlessly between domestic drama, violent revenge thriller, and morbid farce that it seems best to describe is as mainly a black comedy.
While comparisons with the Coens are inevitable due to the blending of tones and Fargo‘s mix of blood on snow, ultimately In Order of Disappearance has overlap but a different feel to the Coen Brothers. There’s an underlying hint of anger to it, and a willingness to go to even darker places in its relationships and humour. In this respect, it is also reminiscent of the McDonagh brothers works. In Bruges and The Guard meet Falling Down, perhaps.
Skarsgård plays Nils Dickman, who opens the film winning an award for Citizen of the Year (due to his work clearing mountain roads of snow), only to receive the news that his son has died of a heroin overdose. From here, he embarks on a methodical revenge spree as his old life falls away, and his wife can’t cope with his reaction to their loss.
Initially, the film is quite powerfully dramatic. Stark, alternately wonderful and horrible images pass across the screen (the backdrops are breathtaking at times) and the fate of Nils’ son is rendered brutally, moreso by his treatment after death than the actual cause of it. A family gets torn slowly apart through bad luck, grief, and failure to cope. It’s incredibly sad, occasionally shocking.
It’s during this sequence, and Nils’ first foray into the world of violent revenge, that the film starts eking out moments of pitch black humour from its setup, until we’ve entered an almost farcical world of drug cartels, kidnapped sons and violent misunderstandings. Even amidst all this, there’s still time for movingly noble acts, but these are then undercut by barbed, bitter, gloriously inappropriate reactions. The excellent supporting cast fluctuate according to death levels (and each death is marked on screen in a witty, economic storytelling device), and though everyone gets a great line or look, the two cartel leaders linger in the memory: a preening vegan psycopath (Pål Sverre Hagen) and the frail looking but deadly Papa (Downfall‘s Bruno Ganz, giving off a ‘Tarantino directing John le Mesurier’ vibe).
The script (by Kim Fupz Aakeson) treads a balance between gently mockery and a seething rage, between moving loss and pitch-black humour. Norway comes out of the film oddly, depicted with an endearing naivety, as represented by two policemen who seem totally unprepared and genuinely sad about all the bad things that are suddenly happening. No one seems able to process the undercurrent of unpleasantness except for Nils, and though he’s driven by anger it’s clear throughout that he’s still vulnerable. With memorable characters, laugh out loud comedy, moments of horror and pathos, In Order of Disappearance is an excellent piece of writing, matched by a cast who sell the seemingly contradictory tones.
Technically, as well, this film deserves plaudits, especially for its sound design. The throbs and thunks of machinery and bodily impacts, the howling winds and city traffic all rise and fall with Nils’ moods, and bits of bodies burst with viscous thwacking noises. If it weren’t for the dialogue, it’s the sort of ambient background music you’d play to babies if you wanted them to grow up to work in an abattoir.
Despite the violence and death, there’s not an excess of gore. It’s almost disappointing when the giant spinning blades of the snow plough aren’t used to dismember anyone in the climactic fight, as Hagen’s character feels deserving of such a fate. While very few people could be described as ‘nice’ in this movie, some are worse than others. Skarsgaard doesn’t portray Nils as an obviously sympathetic lead, and you may find yourself laughing nervously at the sheer inappropriateness of some of the jokes. Don’t go in expecting moral certainties, basically.
From the selection at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival, In Order of Disappearance is the one we’d recommend the most. It certainly deserves to be mentioned with at least the same level of admiration as other recent Norwegian successes like Headhunters or Troll Hunter, though it obviously has more in common with the former. Complex, moving, visually and aurally arresting, it’s also simply a fun watch if you don’t look beneath the surface. Seek it out.
In Order of Disappearance is in UK cinemas in September.
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