Jar City DVD review

There's been a murder in Iceland. Luckily, Mike's on the case.

Jar City

Jar City is a dark, chilly detective thriller set within the bleak, unforgiving landscape of Iceland. On the surface, it is standard TV-grade stuff – an old, misanthropic copper pursues a gruesome case while throwing disparaging, dry comments at his suspects, witnesses and doltish colleagues alike. In fact, I read a reference to the film somewhere as being ‘Inspector Norse’. I prefer ‘A Touch of Nordic Frost’, myself, but importantly Jar City has significant stylistic depth and enough of its own cultural identity and gloomy atmosphere to stand above its generic premise.

The film starts with a two-headed narrative. Inspector Erlendur (Ingvar Sigurðsson) is called to the scene of the simple murder of an old man. Also, a father (Atli Sigurðsson) is in mourning for the death of his young daughter. Of course, murder is never simple and it is convention that the two strands eventually intertwine. Before long, Erlendur and company are digging up graves, questioning old ladies and visiting the bodyparts-in-formaldehyde archive, Jar City, as the investigation drifts towards a rape committed in the 1970s. The narrative provides enough whodunnit twists and turns to be entertaining and engaging, but it isn’t breaking any genre moulds.

Jar City’s distinction is in its representation of its native culture and country, Iceland. This unique location gives the film a wealth of touchstones and thematic resonance, which would simply be unfeasible elsewhere. Chief among these is the narrative focus of the Icelandic genealogy database present on the island, which catalogues and profiles all residents. This central scientific concept is extrapolated outwards, to encompass themes such as personal identity, heritage, destiny and the sins of the past affecting the present.

This morbid precedent is taken up by directer Baltasar Kormákur and his production team, and saturates the film. The Iceland of Jar City is not the party capital of Europe as championed by Damon Albarn or the film Reykjavik 101 (coincidentally, also directed by Kormákur), or the land of glacial beauty as suggested by the pristine music of Sigur Ros. Here, it is bleak, arid and austere. Highrise flats contend with moody mountains on the horizon. The soundtrack is almost entirely made up of bass-heavy male voice choirs, singing the country’s dulcet hymns. This bleakness is also stressed by a colour palate that ups the blues, making every scene seem devoid of life.

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Such brutality also transfers over to the characters themselves. When Erlendur pulls up at a drive-thru, he orders his usual – a sheep’s head. An Icelandic delicacy, the closeness with the physical reality of carnivorousness is played out as he later casually gouges out the sheep’s eye with a flick-knife, and pops it into his mouth, eating it whole. These little touches make the film’s atmosphere one of casual, mundane atrocity, where a pathologist eats a hamburger without removing his bloody surgical gloves. It is slightly off-kilter, slightly absurd. The vein of black humour, expressed mostly in the characterisation of a young, Americanised cop (Björn Haraldsson) who is victimised and marginalised by both superiors and criminals. He is mocked and headbutted, made to do the dirty work, and his moment to shine, where he chases the most notorious psychopath in Iceland, is rendered as a slapstick routine, as he tumbles over a barbed-wire fence, and limps along in pursuit.

Jar City is a film that is recommended not simply because of its solid quality, or even Sigurðsson’s fantastic performance as Erlendur, but because of its success in creating a piece of work indelibly rooted in the culture of its origin. In the film, Iceland may not be a welcoming place, but Jar City uses the country to awesome effect.

Extras None. A real shame, as these ‘world cinema’ releases often come completely devoid of context and background. Lazy work from all involved.


4 stars
1 stars


4 out of 5