- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 1, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Who’d have thought the Norwegians, with one of the highest qualities of living in the entire world, could be capable of conjuring up so much angst. And yet here is the proof in “In Order of Disappearance,” a film by Hans Petter Moland (“A Somewhat Gentle Man”) that melds together elements of the revenge drama, the noir, a gangster story with a little bit of a nod to Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo.” All of it set against interminable, unending snowdrifts and the breathtaking mountainscapes surrounding Oslo.

Apparently the neighboring Swedes no longer have the market concerned on such dread.

In an early scene, Ingvar Dickman (Aron Eskeland) is murdered thanks to a poor decision by his buddy to swipe gangster cocaine. Ingvar is but the latest victim in an ongoing, often violent, turf feud between local Norwegian and foreign Serbian gangsters plying the cocaine trade.

Ingvar’s father Nils (Stellan Skarsgard), understandably does not see things in quite so blatant terms, and vows immediate revenge on those who took his son, and is intent on mowing right up the bad guy chain all the way to the top coke mobster in Oslo, known as “the Count” (Pal Sverre Hagen).

The Swedish actor Mr. Skarsgard, perhaps best known to American audiences as Orlando Bloom’s father in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films, is now 65, and his gaze glowers with Scandinavian ennui the likes of which have not been seen since Max Von Sydow’s collaborations with Ingmar Bergman. But unlike fellow European angel of death Liam Neeson, Mr. Skarsgard is not a superman who will karate chop his enemies into submission and disarm them before they can even chamber a round. Rather, Nils is a blue-collar man, who plows the substantial snowdrifts from the countryside roads outside Oslo with his gargantuan machines.

It’s an interesting choice for Mr. Moland and screenwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson to make their hero, of whom many action scenes and violent acts of retribution are required, not a former spy or cop, but merely an aging man whose job until now has been to clear the roads for commerce and vacation. Perhaps his instantaneous transformation into avenger is a bit hard to swallow, but because he is “everyman,” Nils must use his brains, his knowledge and his mechanical and humanistic skills to best his adversaries.

It’s as if Paul Kersey never trained with a gun, but the anger, the smoldering intensity at his loss is palpable in every moment of Mr. Skarsgard’s performance, and it propels the film forward even in scenes where his character is absent.

Thankfully, those scenes center on the Count himself, and Mr. Hagen alternates between preening and screaming his way through his villainous part in a performance that, if only slightly less modulated or in lesser hands, would have verged into camp. The Count is typically rich for a movie drug kingpin, and inhabits sterile settings in foreground, but with grimy backroom corridors and rooms to take care of the business of gangsterism when needed.

The Count also has a young son, who naturally will figure into Nils’ plans. However, the boy’s demeanor when he is effectively kidnapped by Nils strikes as both impressibly mature and exactly right given his home circumstances and his lack of illusions about his father. He and Nils have a dynamic together that, in the midst of a two-hour bloodbath, is the most tender, surprising aspect of the film.

The Count also has an ex-wife, Marit (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen, seen last year as the leader of the rival a capella group in “Pitch Perfect 2”), who bears the brunt of his tempers but is the only person in the Count’s world who can stand up to him, especially where their son is concerned. In a film that has but two female characters — the other, Nils’ wife, disappears within an hour — it is tempting to label this a misogynistic exercise, particularly in how the Count unleashes his wrath upon Marit later in the film, but Miss Sorensen holds her own amid a sea of raging maleness and often-impugned testosterone.

But as this is, after all, a revenge drama, it isn’t long before the guns are blasting and the bodies of the Count’s underlings piling up — with each departure bookended by a title card of the decedent’s name and the appropriate symbol of his religion. Nils is both methodical in his hunting of the bad guys as well as in purposefully — and, to the factions in question, unknowingly — upping the rivalry between the Serbs and the Norwegian gangs so that all-out war seems likely.

The Serbs are led by the taciturn but certainly deadly Papa (Bruno Ganz), who brings just the right amount of evil gravitas modulated by a certain disinterest in the proceedings.

“Norwegian and Danes and Swedes understand each other pretty well. The Serbs and Croats I would speak to in English. And a couple of them who didn’t speak English, the other guys would function as interpreters,” Mr. Moland told me recently of his multilingual set.

“With Bruno [Ganz], who is an eloquent human being in many languages, I was speaking to him in English as well.”

The cinematography by Philip Ogaard magnificently captures Norway’s natural beauty, and Mr. Ogaard splendidly frames the lethal meetings of Nils and the gangsters in foreground, with the blood of the victims searingly in blaring counterpoint against the wintry countryside — for no better color than red appears so brilliantly against whiteness.

“The biggest problem actually was that [the movie] blood occasionally would freeze up,” Mr. Moland said of the subzero filming locations.

Much of what happens in “In Order of Disappearance” will be familiar to moviegoers and fans of action films, but Mr. Moland’s cynical but carefully realized take on the well-worn tropes of the revenge drama and gangster shootouts elevate the material above its cliches. Here is a director who does not so much pay homage to a genre as give it new blood in new mud, and cheerily shears away the veneer of Scandinavian contentment in the process.

“After the previous film we did, ‘A Somewhat Gentle Man,’ we tried for the first time to do comedy, and [‘In Order of Disappearance’] became a weird sort of comedy,” Mr. Skarsgard told me of the twisted, black humor sprinkled throughout the film. “I didn’t quite understand what kind of film it would turn into because it was such a mix of genres and tones, but Hans said ‘just trust me,’ and I trusted him.”

And its ending, while certainly satisfactory, is about as ambiguous as a piece like this can possibly attempt. It succeeds in spite or — or rather, because of — the limitations and necessities of the genre’s well-worn formula.

“In Order of Disappearance” isn’t likely to win any awards, nor make fans in parents’ groups, but what it does it does well, and in a setting cinema audiences haven’t much seen. And in Mr. Skarsgard, Mr. Moland gives the audience a less-superhuman, more everyman vassal of vengeance.

Be warned, bad guys, Nils has your number(s).

Opens Friday at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

In Norwegian, Serbian and fleeting English. Subtitled.

Rated R: Bloody violence throughout and frequent profanity that somehow sounds nicer in Norwegian.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Mr. Moland intends to remake the film for the English-speaking audience with, who else, Mr. Neeson in the main role. It will likely make more money in English, but I fear the ennui, the dark humor may be somewhat lost in translation.

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