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The landscape may be frozen but emotions run red hot in The Last Ones, Estonia’s official Oscar submission in the Best International Film category. Centered around a remote mining community in Finnish Lapland, deep inside the Arctic Circle, writer-director Veiko Ounpuu’s bleak depiction of dead-end lives and desperate choices combines serious intentions, arresting visuals and gritty performances from a mostly Finnish cast. Despite some tonal wobbles in its latter stages, it paints a mostly compelling picture of raw-knuckled blue-collar existence in one of Europe’s last remaining wilderness zones. This is Ounpuu’s third Academy Awards contender, following The Temptation of St. Tony (2009) and Free Range (2013).
World premiered on home turf at Black Nights film festival in Tallinn last November, The Last Ones has been widely billed as a “Nordic Western.” It clearly borrows some of the genre’s surface elements: an elemental landscape, a lawless frontier town, a last-chance saloon where archetypal characters play for high stakes. But Ounpuu is more interested in subverting the traditional machismo of the Old West with his bleak critique of toxic masculinity and hollow pioneer mythology. Here in the Wild North, these modern-day existential cowboys mostly fall victim to self-destructive dreams of escape through money, love, alcohol, sex and other elusive brands of fool’s gold.
The Last Ones opens in a subterranean hellscape, a mine deep beneath the frozen tundra of Lapland, where workers are in revolt against their bosses as ominous cracks and floods threaten imminent disaster. Playing uneasy middle man in this fractious showdown is Rupi (Paaru Oja), his loyalties torn between the mine’s hard-driving boss Kari (Tommy Korpela) and his own father Oula (Sulevi Peltola), an indigenous reindeer herder stubbornly clinging to his small patch of land while giant mining companies despoil the pristine wilderness all around. If Rupi is the film’s flawed anti-hero, Kari is the charismatic villain, a rapacious capitalist ogre who brushes off each lethal mine accident by firing up his workers with booze, drugs and phony macho camaraderie.
Above ground, the scrappy community serving the mine is the kind of purgatorial one-horse-town where life revolves around heavy drinking, rowdy parties and boozy karaoke at the local saloon. Yearning for a better life, ice-blonde beauty Riitta (Laura Birn) is trapped in a dying marriage to aging, needy, amateur rock musician Lievonen (Elmer Back). She develops a a flirtatious interest in Rupi but also catches the eye of the Machiavellian Kari, who lures her into his orbit by offering her a job. As sexual tensions begin to boil over, Kari sets a trap to seduce Riitta by dispatching Rupi and Lievonen on a doomed mission to collect fresh narcotic supplies at the Norwegian border. But all these betrayals backfire badly, escalating into bloodshed.
Ounpuu describes The Last Ones as a “very simple metaphor” veiled by a “smokescreen” of naturalistic detail. Initially nuanced and morally ambiguous, the plot lurches deeper into melodrama in its final act with overblown stage villainy, violent confrontations and an incongruously funny dynamite suicide sequence. In these rambling closing stretches, Ounpuu seems to lose control of the film’s tone, or at least fall victim to his own muddled ambitions, abandoning his protagonists to further punishment rather than steering them toward cathartic closure. This sense of unresolved tension may be deliberate, of course, but it feels more like an evasion than a satisfying statement.
Even so, for most of its runtime, The Last Ones works as both compelling psychodrama and handsome sensory experience. Cinematographer Sten-Johan Lill paints the majestic Arctic vistas in elegantly muted autumnal colors, with sparing use of freeze-frame lending the film’s aesthetic an agreeably retro edge. Sven Grunberg’s astringent electro-orchestral score veers from broody angst to abrasive dissonance while an eclectic soundtrack jukebox milks maximum emotional impact from Roxette’s kitsch Europop stomper “It Must Have Been Love,” Bob Dylan’s classic country-rock ballad “Lay Lady Lady” and John Lennon’s bitter political anthem “Working Class Hero”.
Production companies: Homeless Bob Productions, BUFO, PRPL
Cast: Paaru Oja, Laura Birn, Tommi Korpela, Elmer Back, Sulevi Peltola, Samuli Edelmann
Director: Veiko Ounpuu
Screenwriters: Veiko Ounpuu, Heikki Huttu-Hiltunen, Eero Tammi
Producer: Katrin Kissa
Cinematographer: Sten-Johan Lill
Editors: Wouter van Luijn, Xander Nijsten
Music: Sven Grunberg
Sales company: Loco Films, Paris
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