In case you’re unaware, Lars Von Trier is not the only director to regard Stellan Skarsgård as something of a talisman, as the actor has paired up with director Hans Petter Moland three times previously, most recently with "A Somewhat Gentle Man," a film we reviewed in 2011. The duo return to the Berlinale this year with competition film "In Order Of Disappearance" (aka "Kraftidioten"), which marks a deliciously mean-spirited step up from 'Gentle Man'—pretty much bringing the house down at our public screening—though that might be partly due to home crowd advantage, as the film also features regional favorite Bruno Ganz in a small, memorable role. Or maybe not, because while initially it struggles to establish a consistent tone, as soon as the plot kicks off in earnest, the film picks up speed and confidence, venting plumes of sight gags, bloody violence and deadpan, dead-on cultural observations like powdery snow from a thematically-appropriate metaphorical snowplow. A kind of Norwegian mash-up of "Fargo," "Taken" and "Seven Psychopaths," it soon ramps up to a dark, mordantly hilarious blast.
Like Homer Simpson's Mr. Plow, Nils Dickman (Skarsgård) has found his snow-clearing business to be the ticket to admiration and acceptance in his remote Norwegian adopted hometown. And when the film opens he is getting dressed to accept a "Citizen of the Year" award from the local council in recognition of his tireless work keeping the roads around the tiny local airport passable. Plowing is clearly a calling for Dickman, not a chore (later he'll read the machine’s manual aloud as a bedtime story) and he and his wife seem perfectly contented. We'll be honest, at this point, knowing little about the film in advance, we thought we knew what we were getting: a quirky Scandic character dramedy, perhaps featuring Skarsgård bumbling around hang-doggishly, engaging in some petty feud with the local fire chief or something? But then suddenly it all takes a turn for the genre, and we're at the airport where young Ingvar, who we'll soon discover is Nils' son, is having a gun shoved in his face, and being bundled into a car whose backseat is already occupied by a colleague who’s been beaten to a bloody pulp. It is Ingvar's subsequent murder via overdose, over a drug deal of which he was innocent, that prompts Nils to seek revenge. Not exactly rib-tickling so far, then.
But moments of bone-dry humor do start to creep in at brilliantly inappropriate junctures. Nils and his wife go to the police morgue to identify the body, where a surly, unsympathetic policeman shrugs off their son's death as just another junkie overdose, while an attendant jacks up the squeaky morgue slab on which the body lies (the ridiculous counterpoint of the crude fork lifting of solemn death recurs later on). Nils’ wife turns her grief inward, never questioning the police version of events, and instead blaming herself and Nils for not noticing their son’s addiction. But Nils remains convinced that Ingvar was murdered, and resolves to track down everyone responsible for his death. Along the way he loses his wife (who leaves a perfectly blank sheet of paper, folded and enveloped as her goodbye note) but he gains a new sense of purpose, turning his previously honest, working-man talents to methodically, and violently, offing a whole cadre of bad guys in a variety of inelegant ways, most of which require copious amounts of blood to be spilled on snow. He’s building up to the head honcho bad guy, The Count (Pål Sverre Hagan from “Kon Tiki”), who in turn gets a rival drug gang, a family of Serbs headed by a comically hoarse Ganz, involved in the mess.
With each death a somber title appears like a mass card with the name of the deceased and a graphic symbol denoting their religion, and they come faster and faster until at the climax a single card has to find room for about ten names. But it’s not the overarching structure that is the chief fun of this film; that lies in the tiny details, like when a suicidal Nils is interrupted arranging his own death by shotgun and finds his lip briefly stuck to the barrel, or The Count is revealed to be carrying a tray of take-out coffees to a torture session, or one of The Count’s henchmen holds forth at length, in some Tarantino-esque dialogue, about how and why decent welfare systems only exist in cold climates.
For the second time in three days (the first being with “Nymphomaniac,") Skarsgård has impressed us with just how much character he can imbue into his underplaying. After discovering for the first time his facility for visiting violent death upon his son’s murderers, he returns home, and his transition from invigoration and eagerness to share, to guardedness in reaction to his wife’s cold shoulder tells us so much without a single word. Ganz too is a pleasure, though he shows up relatively late in the proceedings, and another largely-wordless scene in which the two of them share the screen is especially terrific. Not quite in their league, and delivering a performance more overtly cartoony is Hagan as the arch villain, but his boyishness certainly works in this context—he’s a petulant child, who just happens to be a drug kingpin, who’s also involved in a bitter custody battle with his wife Marit (Birgitte Hjort Sørenson) over his young son.
"Have you ever heard of Stockholm Syndrome?" asks the boy at one point as he innocently nestles into his kidnapper's paternal embrace. Indeed we have, and it’s a pretty apt description of the effect the film had on us, yanking us back and forth—a little unwillingly at first, but by the end winning us totally over to its side, willing to make all necessary excuses for any lapses. A true blue dark comedy that isn't so concerned with its darkness that it forgets to be laugh-out-loud silly at times too, “In Order of Disappearance” is a bitter, bloody treat for the black of heart. [B+]