In Order of Disappearance (Kraftidioten): Berlin Review

Berlin Film Festival
"In Order of Disappearance"
A rip-roaring revenge tale heats up the frozen North.

Stellan Skarsgard plays a mild-mannered snowplow driver who stacks up a formidable body count while avenging the murder of his son in Hans Petter Moland’s deadpan bloodbath.

There hasn’t been this much blood spilled in a frigid, snowbound landscape -- especially with this much droll, dark humor -- since the Coen Brothers fed a hapless Steve Buscemi into a wood chipper in Fargo. A vigorously plotted revenge saga about an aggrieved father who almost singlehandedly turns the icy mountainsides and fjords of small-town Norway into a criminal graveyard, In Order of Disappearance provides a wonderful vehicle for Stellan Skarsgard's stone-faced gravitas and calm intelligence. It also marks a cracking new chapter in the actor’s collaboration with director Hans Petter Moland, which began in 1995 with Zero Kelvin.

Already a brisk seller to international markets, the superbly directed film seems a safe bet to be snapped up for U.S. distribution, and a deal for remake rights surely won’t be far behind. While it’s being somewhat reductively billed as an “action comedy,” this is actually a much more subtle mix of contrasting tones, shifting fluidly from devastating family tragedy to pitiless violence to sharp observational and social humor, all wrapped up in a vivid sense of place. A very cold place.

Skarsgard and Moland last teamed on 2010’s A Somewhat Gentle Man, which might almost be an ironic description of Nils Dickman, a Swedish transplant whom we first meet being courted to run for political office in the Farmers Centrist Party and honored as Citizen of the Year. In his acceptance speech he talks with humility of being a pathfinder, clearing a way through the wilderness for his fellow townsfolk via his job driving a massive snow-blower truck around the municipal roads in winter.

Nils’ path takes an unexpected detour when his grown son inadvertently gets in the way of a drug dispute and turns up dead, shot full of heroin. Cops write it off as another case of “young people destroying themselves,” a version that Nils’ wife Gudrun (Hildegard Riise) accepts. Her grief and guilt over the discovery that she didn’t know her son causes the marriage to fall apart. But Nils is convinced their son was no junkie.

Moland and screenwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson immediately let us know we’re in capable hands with the crisp economy of this setup, and Skarsgard is no less precise in showing us exactly what kind of man Nils is. The brisk early action benefits enormously from unsentimental handling of scenes in which he and Gudrun get news of their son’s death, their subsequent trip to the morgue to indentify the body, and the funeral, which takes place under a heavy snowfall in countryside thickly blanketed in white. But all the while a brooding sense is building that Nils is not going to stoically put this behind him.

He abandons his initial drastic course of action when he encounters his son’s terrified friend Finn (Tobias Santelmann), whose stupidity led to the killing. Nils gets the name of Finn’s drug contact, and thanks to the modern marvel of smartphone contact lists, he soon establishes a trail leading all the way to Greven, known as “The Count” (Pal Sverre Hagen). The oily criminal scion has been peaceably splitting territories with the Serbian Mafia, led by Papa (Bruno Ganz). But when disappearances start mounting up, with blame being wrongly attributed, a crime war ignites.

Moland’s tongue is planted firmly in his cheek, as demonstrated by the death notices that punctuate the action, with a black screen bearing the deceased’s birth name, crime alias and a symbol denoting religion – chiefly Christian or Serbian Orthodox, but with the odd Jew or atheist thrown in. But there’s a transfixing solemnity underlying the black comedy. That makes it far more compelling than just another assembly line of murder en route to an inevitable final showdown among all the various factions.

Those formulaic elements are here, make no mistake, but the wit of the screenplay and the actors’ characterizations ensure that it's highly entertaining, giving the film a distinctive personality.

That extends also to Jorgen Stangebye Larsen’s production design. The Count and Papa each get a priceless milieu that echoes who they are, the former favoring high-end, low-taste modern décor that mixes minimalism with hideous statement pieces, while the latter hunkers down with his henchmen in a dimly lit room of dusty chandeliers and heavy rugs.

The Count is the epitome of pretentious Eurotrash with his skinny suits, topknot ponytail and vegan diet. He’s ruthless but also given to infantile petulance, particularly when clashing with his disgusted Danish ex-wife (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen) over custody issues. “It’s not always easy being me,” he moans pathetically. The character borders on caricature but for the most part deliciously so. As Greven’s gloomy Serbian counterpart, Ganz is a whole other breed of old-school gangster, though no less amusing, his voice such a hoarse rasp he sometimes requires an interpreter.

The film sacrifices some of its tautness as all the various threats converge, and could perhaps stand to be tightened by ten minutes or so. Also, the women characters are not given enough of a stake. But since much is made of Nils’ surname and related ideas of masculinity, fatherhood and fraternal codes, it might have been unrealistic to expect otherwise. None of their roles are exactly substantial, but there are rich character nuances among the goons on both sides (the stupendously bearded Kristofer Hivju from Game of Thrones among them), and an interesting addition in Nils’ estranged brother (Peter Andersson), whose shady past comes into play.

Running through the script are some very funny exchanges – among cops, Norwegian drug thugs, Serbians, regular townsfolk – that poke wry fun at the insular nature of life in the snowy sticks, attitudes toward foreigners, and the virtues of the Scandinavian welfare state. Nowhere is this more hilarious than when a Central European career criminal marvels at the comforts of a Norwegian prison – good meals, dental coverage, pension contributions for work, pleasant guards and no rape!

Binding all this together into a unifying tone is Skarsgard’s rivetingly contained performance as a quiet man pushed to extremes by his almost biblical sense of justice and retribution. “A father must avenge his son,” he says with deadly seriousness. But Nils also shows innate compassion in his paternal scenes with Greven’s young son. Unlike many films in which good men are driven by violence against their children to take brutal measures, Nils has set himself a task, and he performs it with methodical focus and minimal burdened glowering (see Hugh Jackman, Prisoners).

The film looks aces, with Philip Ogaard’s unfussy camerawork letting the imposing landscape speak for itself. The score by Kaspar Kaae and Kare Vestrheim effectively uses acoustic guitar elements to lend the faintest suggestion of a Western flavor to the action.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)

Production company: Paradox Film, Zentropa International Sweden, Zentropa Entertainment

Cast: Stellan Skarsgard, Bruno Ganz, Pal Sverre Hagen, Birgitte Hjort Sorensen, Jakob Oftebro, Kristofer Hivju, Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Hildegun Riise, Peter Andersson, Jon Oigarde, Gard B. Eidsvold, Tobias Santelmann

Director: Hans Petter Moland

Screenwriter: Kim Fupz Aakeson

Producers: Finn Gjerdrum, Stein B. Kvae

Executive producers: Finn Gjerdrum, Stein B. Kvae, Peter Garde, Erik Poppe, Stellan Skarsgard, Hans Petter Moland

Director of photography: Philip Ogaard

Production designer: Jorgen Stangebye Larsen

Music: Kaspar Kaae, Kare Vestrheim

Costume designer: Anne Pedersen

Editor: Jens Christian Fodstad

Sales: TrustNordisk

No rating, 117 minutes