Monday, September 29, 2014
The Humour of Disappearance
by Carl Pierer
Hard-working, dedicated snow plough driver, Nils Dickman (Stellan Skarsgård), is living a peaceful life with his wife Gudrun in a small, rural town in Norway. Just after being named Citizen of the Year, their son is found dead, apparently due to an overdose. The beautiful shots of wintery Norwegian landscapes, Nils' doubts that his son could ever have been an addict and Gudrun's acceptance of this fact seem to set the scene for a sombre Nordic drama. The film shifts gears, however, as Nils starts to investigate his son's death. The rest of the film, reminiscent of the blockbuster "Taken", sees Nils meticulously eliminating gangsters one after another, thereby incidentally causing a drug war between the Norwegian-Swedish gang, headed by "the Count" (Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen), and the Serbian gang under "Papa" (Bruno Ganz). Rather predictably, it all ends in a final showdown between all the major actors involved. While the plot suggests an action film à la Hollywood, the film playfully escapes confinement to this category.
It is not quite clear to whom the Norwegian title of Hans Petter Moland's new film, "Kraftidioten" (roughly: ‘really dumb person'), is meant to refer. Any of the characters seem to be a suitable candidates. The English title, on the other hand, "In Order of Disappearance" points toward the first central element in the film's comedy: it lets the audience expect, but meets those very expectations only through inversion. For instance, the film flips the standard cast-list in the closing titles. Instead of their order of appearance, a brief obituary is shown as the characters disappear throughout the film. This motif is varied on different levels: the evil boss of the Norwegian drug gang, "the Count", is indeed a very progressive and forward thinking individual. He is a vegan, gets coffee for his men while they are busy torturing one of their victims, and does not readily give in to his ex-wife's custody battle over their son. In short, a modern business leader. Nils, in contrast, is a calculating, cold-blooded serial killer. He shows no signs of pain nor remorse. Yet, the film challenges the viewer subtly: while "the Count" should be appreciated (and Nils condemned) because of their respective deeds, the audience sympathises with Nils' Nordic Stoicism. Fortunately, this moral dilemma is resolved for the spectator in the second half of the film as "the Count" acts more and more as an evil overlord is supposed to do: shooting his own men, hitting his ex-wife, killing his informants after they delivered their information.
The film constantly creates expectations but fails to deliver, thus de-masking the elements of run-of-the-mill action films. For instance, trouble is brewing at home when Nils sets out to kill the gangsters. Of course, Gudrun, his wife, cannot stay with him as he turns into a ruthless serial killer and the audience is led to expect her leaving. They stop talking to each other. There is nothing they have to say, at dinner they sit in silence. One evening, then, Nils finds her gone and a letter on the bed. As the background music strikes a more melancholic tone and as he opens the letter, a drama is imminent; this letter will shatter Nils' already fragile world. Indeed, Nils discovers a most unsettling and disturbing note: a mere blank page. The film, however, moves on without exploiting the philosophical potential of this ingenious gag. Although Gudrun has left him, Nils does not seem to bother too much and continues to hunt down the mafia-like henchmen.
Geir and Aron Horowitz are two of "the Count's" closest henchmen. Jointly, they act as surrogate fathers whenever "the Count" is too busy to take care of his son himself. Geir displays empathy both with the son and "the Count's" ex-wife, whereas Aron is charged with making sure that the boy will eat his vegetables. Quite evidently, a good, honest action film must not lack a proper love story. The audience expects and the film provides, but yet again with a twist. The two henchmen are shown watching their victim's fumes rise from a chimney and shortly afterwards kissing ferociously.
While all the "indigenous" Norwegian/Swedish characters in the film are latently or manifestly xenophobic, the second criminal gang, the Serbs, are merely a group of playful men. Although they pursue their interests just as ruthlessly as their Norwegian/Swedish counterparts, they are endeared to the spectator when these smartly dressed, harsh-looking criminals frolic in the Norwegian snow.
The second basic comic element of the film is its merciless realism. Scenes are shot just a tiny bit too long, too realistically for a standard action film. Reality breaks through the apparent narrative of the film and lays bare the idealisation predominant in the films caricatured. At one point, Nils is just about to commit suicide, with the gun already in his mouth, when he is distracted at the last second. When he tries to remove the gun from his mouth, the camera lingers just a second longer to show how his upper lip sticks to the icy metal. This happens in reality, not in films. Furthermore, since the realism achieves a comic effect, the blatant gore of the film is digestable. The amount of blood and other bodily fluids shown on-screen falls nothing short of any Tarantino film. However, in this context, it is not merely violent and gruesome, but a side-effect of the realism on display.
The film indulges in disappointing its viewers. A great many expectations are created and although they are partially met, it is never quite the way the audience would expect or desire it. None of the characters are truly likeable because they are all essentially flawed. Yet, neither are they worth condemnation. They are too shallow, too much of a cliché to be interesting. Nonetheless, they are not stereotypical enough to spoil the story. The film is predictably unpredictable: the plot is just as one would expect for any revenge action story. But because the film constantly defies this very category, the audience expects some major key change in the unfolding of the plot as well. Again, the film does not deliver.
Repeated, beautiful shots of snowy Norwegian landscapes and their reflections in the windows of Nils' snow plough really spells it out for the spectator: they are obviously profound metaphors for Nils' icy character. But then again, as soon as the spectator is brought to this insight, a different landscape is shown: another of Nils' victims is laid to rest in a similar setting – wrapped in chicken wire, they are tossed over a waterfall – underlined with epic choral music. The comic effect of the repetition of this ceremony time and again transfers to the repeated landscape shots. So maybe those do not have any deeper meaning after all. The film successfully evades any serious interpretation.
Despite the apparent comedy, the viewer cannot laugh light-heartedly. For most parts, it is clear where the audience is supposed to laugh. Almost as explicit as the canned laughter in any sitcom, this creates an uncanny peer pressure for the viewer in the audience, leading to outbursts of giggling and laughter at rather inappropriate points. The German critic Joachim Kuntz writes: "Ex-Ehefrauen mit der Faust ins Gesicht zu schlagen ist definitiv nicht lustig" (roughly: „To hit ex-wives in the face is certainly not funny"). While Kuntz is right, the audience – keen on the next gory punchline – laughs frantically at this very scene. Similarly, the spectators find themselves laughing at blatantly racist, abusive and otherwise morally dubious scenes. Because the humour is not innocent but "dark", this makes for an uncomfortable situation. The trouble is, no one can feign ignorance of the fact that domestic violence, xenophobia, and misogyny are parts of our daily life. Now, if these societal evils are ridiculed in a film, the socially aware viewer is impaled on one horn or the other of a dilemma: either she shrugs her shoulders and laughs (thus accepting the evils as a comic part of society) or she does not find it funny (thus giving weight and importance to concepts whose truth she does not acknowledge). In either case, she is bound to feel uncomfortable and somewhat guilty. Nonetheless, she is more than willing to pay £7.50 for this experience, to expose herself to a situation in which she feels slightly uneasy.
Ultimately, the spectator finds himself laughing in the face of cruelty and gore, about condemnable attitudes and all too obvious jokes. By turning stereotypes upside down, the film ridicules the preconceptions of the viewer. The relentless realism demonstrates the utter ridiculousness of reality. However, the film strains these elements too much: the inverted cliché becomes itself a cliché, while the realistic lingering of the camera turns into a dictate to laugh. Being told which parts are to be found funny is simply annoying. This is the greatest flaw of the painfully unsophisticated "dark" comedy "In Order of Disappearance".
Posted by Carl Pierer at 12:15 AM | Permalink