Oscar Svenson’s been a naughty boy. But exactly how naughty he’s been is a mystery that a surly a detective named Solør is keen to get to the bottom of, particularly since Oscar was found unconscious at the scene of a shoot-out in a strip joint. There are dead bodies all over the place, but plausible answers are in short supply.
Adapted from a story by best-selling author Jo Nesbø, Jackpot is a Norwegian thriller from writer and director Magnus Martens, and it’s full of madness, idiocy, violence and extraordinary turns of fortune. And it’s a fortune that gets Oscar into all that trouble in the first place, we soon learn.
Chipping out a miserable living as a factory worker, Oscar (Kyrre Hellum) finds himself drawn, against his better judgement, into a small pools syndicate. Unfortunately for Oscar, the other members of the syndicate are all cold-blooded ex-convicts, the scariest of them being the hulking Thor (Mads Ousdal) and the wiry, violent Billy (Arthur Berning). And when the group unexpectedly wins the 1.7 million krone jackpot, their reluctance to share their newfound wealth leads to all kinds of distrust, squabbling and bloodshed.
Repeatedly cutting between the strip club aftermath outlined above and Oscar’s version of events, Jackpot isn’t unlike Fargo in its tone. Exactly whom we can trust in this messy web of intrigue and double-crossing is seldom clear, and thanks to some decent acting and characterisation, we quickly sympathise with Oscar’s plight, and we might even find it within ourselves to like Solør (Henrik Mestad) just a little, too. He so wants to play the tough cop, yet the harder he tries to get to the bottom of the case, the more it slips out of his reach.
Martens directs with confidence, straddling the line between ugly violence and outright absurdity with surety, and while there are moments of palpable danger, the overall atmosphere, particularly towards the batty final act, is more of a blood-soaked caper in the Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels mode – The Killing this is not.
Keeping the plot moving along at a dizzying clip, Martens barely gives us time to think about some of narrative contrivances, which on reflection are manifold. But there’s so much fun to be had with its bait-and-switch storytelling, which takes in a tanning bed and a magical machine which churns out plastic Christmas trees on a production line, that guessing when a plot device is going to come back and haunt one of the characters becomes part of the game.
Jackpot has the slight misfortune of following Headhunters into UK cinemas – another blackly comic crime thriller from the pen of Jo Nesbø. Headhunters is undeniably the slicker, more charismatic film, and Jackpot suffers somewhat by comparison; the latter clearly has a lesser budget than the former, and Headhunters contains the greater number of images and moments which stick in the mind after the lights have gone back up.
But then again, Jackpot’s small budget works in its favour somewhat; there’s a grungy, unseemly atmosphere to its locations and characters, and it’s perhaps fitting that, like its underdog protagonist, Oscar, it’s something of an underdog.
Without giving anything more away, Jackpot somehow manages to draw all of its chaotically tangled threads together for a neat, satisfying climax. Like the curious Christmas tree-making contraption mentioned earlier, Jackpot is first and foremost mechanical – an elaborate jumble of interlocking cogs that intermesh and turn in ways that are sometimes predictable, but occasionally surprising and very, very funny.
Jackpot isn’t the best Scandinavian thriller of the year, but it’s not far off. It has the same compelling energy as a page-turning novel and, unlike too many modern thrillers, its story is enlivened by its characters rather than its action set-pieces. Oscar’s been a naughty boy, and finding out exactly how naughty he’s been will keep you hooked to the very end.