With his flat cap and pipe, the middle-aged Veijo Haukka makes for an unlikely sort of vigilante anti-hero. Certainly, he doesn’t seem particularly tough – there’s just a touch of coldness around those dark, unblinking eyes that hints at his capacity for violence.
Written and directed by Teemu Nikki, Finnish drama Euthanizer is one of those films whose grubby, downbeat atmosphere seeps into the bones as you’re watching it. Set in a tired-looking industrial town that could almost be anywhere in northern Europe, it recalls Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in its portrayal of a misanthropic outsider – though Travis Bickle never flew into a rage over a hit-and-run incident involving a badger.
As its title suggests, cruelty and suffering are ever-present themes in Euthanizer (Finnish title: Armomurhaaja), and its central character clearly thinks about these subjects quite a bit. A mechanic by trade, Veijo (Matti Onnismaa) also specialises in what he calls “End of life services” – that is, he’ll methodically snuff out the lives of sick or unwanted pets, either with gas or a bullet depending on the size of the animal. Veijo’s fee for these services sometimes involves cash, but just as often see him delivering rambling monologues about the cruelty of keeping cats in cramped apartments or the loneliness of guinea pigs cooped up in cages.
Already a volatile character, Veijo’s patience is tested further by a crooked mechanic and wannabe white supremacist, Petri (Jari Virman), who’d rather have his dog killed than go to the expense of taking it to a vet. Veijo, seeing nothing wrong with the unwanted mutt, decides to look after it himself – a seemingly harmless choice that has a grim pay-off later on.
Although shot on an evidently low budget, Nikki – who also serves as editor and cinematographer – makes the most of his limited resources, and his desaturated colour palette underlines his rough-edged story. In terms of tone, Euthanizer recalls Shane Meadows’ indie gem Dead Man’s Shoes in its mix of thriller elements and kitchen sink realism; it could even be described as a Nordic take on film noir, with its violence, obsession with death and kinky sex.
There are moments of pathos, too; Veijo’s father is a kind of sick animal himself – stuck in a hospital bed and nearing the end of his life. Veijo goes to visit him, and strikes up an unlikely relationship with a nurse, Lotta (Hannamaija Nikander) who’s several years his junior and seemingly fascinated by the boundary between life and death.
Even at a brisk 80 minutes, Euthanizer is a slow-burn, and its subject matter alone means it should be approached with caution. Nikki’s a tasteful enough filmmaker to keep the deaths of his story’s animals off-screen, but the images he does pick out – unwanted cat boxes piled up outside a garage, empty dog collars and leads hanging from the branches in a woodland – are disquieting enough by themselves.
Unlike Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here – another noir-ish thriller about a guy with a horrible job – Euthanizer never quite builds its tension to a crescendo, and its sights and sounds certainly aren’t as masterfully-hewn as the ones in that film.
Nevertheless, there’s much to recommend about Euthanizer – particularly Matti Onnismaa’s sullen yet oddly compelling performance in the lead. Be warned, though: once watched, its overwhelming air of gloom hangs around for hours, like the stench of gasoline.
The Euthanizer is out in selected cinemas on the 20th July, with a VOD release set for the 7th August.