Something Nordic this way Comes: The Oath (on Netflix)

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As Iceland continues to break ground in the terrain of bleak crime cinemamuch like South Korea, Australia and American Country Noir have over the past decadea clear figurehead has emerged. His name is Baltasar Kormákur. He has a penchant for winding bloody yarns of despair, revenge and redemption into the frigid tapestries of his homeland. He also looks a helluva lot like the Scandinavian older brother of Colin Farrell.

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Kormákur and Farrell: Separated at brood.

What’s interesting about Kormákur is that, before creating his two best pieces of cinemaboth filmed in Iceland with Icelandic casts and in the native tonguehe was already doing big-budget Hollywood flicks, directing Denzel, Marky Mark and Jake G in completely decent and also completely unremarkable blockbusters like 2 Guns, Contraband and Everest.

Fortunately for lovers of Nordic Noir and grim crime cinema, he went back to his native roots and filmed both The Oath and Trapped in Iceland between 2015 and 2016. Trapped, as I detailed in a previous post, is one of the better Nordic Noir series out there. And The Oath, as I’ll soon detail, is one of the better foreign crime thrillersat least this side of South KoreaI’ve seen since Headhunters and Tell No One.

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Aksel Hennie in Headhunters, one of the best foreign thrillers of the century—filmed across the pond in Norway.

But before diving further into Kormákur’s circuitously serendipitous career moves, let’s get toThe Oath.

It starts in typical Icelandic fashion, with some bearded dudes in knitted sweaters wrangling horses outside a quaint farmhouse. We soon find that one of these men is Finnur (Kormákur as the lead in his own film), a heart surgeon tending to the last affairs of his father’s estate after the old man has kicked the bucket. A funeral follows, where we’re introduced to Finnur’s family and, most noticeably, his goth-y teenage daughter Anna (Hera Hilmar) who’s clearly in some sort of drug-induced, angsty downward spiral.

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“Ugh, dad—Iceland, like, totally blows. Speaking of blow…”

A scene later, we meet Anna’s tatted-up badboy drug dealer boyfriend, Óttar, who looks 20 years older than her and is constantly accompanied by his pitbull. He also drives a fancy car and hosts rapey drug parties in his posh penthouse. (Boyfriend material, clearly.) From here, shit goes south, as Finnur sees that ol’ Óttar is driving Anna toward an early grave.

In true viking vigilante form, Finnur decides to take matters into his own hands. This leads to a confrontation that pit father and boyfriend as foes. It also leads to shotgun shells filled with nails, kidnapping and torture, and our hero heart surgeon having a less familiar brand of blood on his hands. From the admixture of Finnur’s initial innocence and subsequent hellbent revenge, a character somewhere between Walter White in the first few episodes of Breaking Bad and Liam Neeson in Taken emerges.

Gísli Örn Garðarsson and Baltasar Kormákur in The Oath

“I eat pieces of hákarl like you for breakfast!”

The film’s title and moral conundrum stem from this transformation in Finnur. While the titular wordplay conjuring the Hippocratic Oath is no stroke of genius, Kormákur’s transformative performance is brilliant, and the taut narrative he winds (he also co-wrote the film) is a thing of grimalbeit somewhat predictablebeauty.

This is not to say that I’m heralding Kormákur as a great or even innovative director. While slightly more visually compelling than the understated Trapped, the cinematography here rarely does much to incorporate Iceland’s sublime landscapesa feature that could easily give his crime cinema an added undercurrent of bone-chilling grimness. 

But where the camerawork here is fine yet unremarkablemuch like the fruits of Kormákur’s Hollywood careerthe director is simply much more effective when given full reign over his projects. Where his creation Trapped was a meticulously plotted, slow-burn thriller more adherent to the Nordic Noir stamp, The Oath is a fast-paced thriller that thrives on its unrelenting tension. Both are covered in Kormákur’s printsincluding a running ensemble of Iceland’s finest acting talentand both prove that this guy is a force to be reckoned with when he brings the fight to his own turf.

Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson

Speaking of Icelandic ultraviolence, I was in Reykjavík earlier this year and snapped a photo of Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, AKA “The Mountain” from Game of Thrones. He grunted at me.

Netflix acquired The Oath in the wake of Trapped‘s success. Here’s hoping the service takes the same cue on Kormákur’s earlier Icelandic crime flicks, namely The Deep and Jar City.

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 6.7

-Sam Adams

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Dane Killers: The Department Q Saga on Netflix Instant

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Despite appearances, this movie does the opposite of suck.

In crossing language-barriers, film titles also often end up crossing eyes. It’s a movie politics endemic that has very little to do with good screenwriters and very much to do with cheap industry suits nickel-and-diming accomplished translators. After all, who would have thought that something called Elite Squad: The Enemy Within would be one of the best prison thrillers of all time? Or that a film called Jack Strongmarketed to look like a Sunday night CBS Jason Bourne spinoff starring Patrick Wilsonwould end up being a heady espionage thriller meriting mention in the same breath as The Debt or Citizen X?

I kept this in mind when I saw that a film called Department Q: The Keeper of Lost Causesburied deep in some subgenre of foreign crime flicks on Netflixhad a 7.2 on IMDb. Shit, I thought, I’ll fox with that…

After all, the last Danish crime trilogy I watched was Nicolas Winding Refn’s dazzlingly grim, career-launching Pusher Trilogya modern masterpiece in my book. (By the end of this post, you’ll see why I feel compelled to bestow Department Q with the illustrious designation of “second-best Danish crime trilogy ever.”)

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You’re broke, eh? I been shaking two nickels together for a month, trying to get them to mate.”

Actually, I should mention that “saga” is more apt than “trilogy,” as Department Q films continue to be made at a pace that’s setting up writer Jussi Adler-Olsen to look like a modern-day Danish Raymond Chandler.

Before I launch into a mostly spoiler-free dissection of all three films currently comprising the Q series, I’ll make the blanket statement that it’s essentially a very goodalbeit slightly slower and more formulaicmashup of True Detective SE1, The Dragon Tattoo Trilogy and The Killing. If that interests you, please do read on.

Department Q: The Keeper of Lost Causes
Nikolaj Lie Kaas as Carl Morck in Department Q
Speaking of The KillingDepartment Q lead Nikolaj Lie Kaas had a season-long role on Forbrydelsen, which, if the Danish hire good translators, might mean “The Killing”—a show that inspired the notorious four-season AMC show… The Killing. Which was a really weird series. Which I liked. Which was disjointed. Which went from lauded HBO series status to prolonged dud. And then for those of us who hung on for season three, arguably a damn good show again. (Featuring one of my favorite detective characters of all time, the great pre-RoboCop Joel Kinnaman as Holder.)
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But back to the first installation in the Q saga. We’re introduced to detective Carl Morck, a brooding, spiteful alcoholic who seems to be severely deficient in the department of fucks given. Like any troubled movie cop, Morck’s predicament is that he once had a good life, and now doesn’t. Thus the brooding. Oh yeah, and he fucked up a raid and got some of his guys killed. This gives more reason for brooding.

Instead of processing his guilt/grief, Morck comes back to work too early. Because that’s what brooding movie cops do. So his boss assigns him to a cold case detail operating out of a dank basement. There, he meets his sidekick Assad, the yin to his yangan upbeat, devout Muslim cop who blares bass-heavy rap and tells jokes. Morck doesn’t like jokes.

Their entry case appears at first glance to be an open-and-shut suicide involving a young woman who jumped off a ferry. But as Morck digs deeper, it’s clear that something more sinister than suicide may be at play here. The narrative unravels by interspersing flashback sequences of the woman’s life with developments in the present investigation.

A bleak road of torture, revenge and redemption awaits. While this film may be as formulaic as most adapted detective novels, it goes to some pretty twisted places, and its got a helluva lot more edge than your run-of-the-mill private-dick flick. With great performances to boot, this is some damned good, new-fashioned  murder mystery cinema.

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.2

Department Q: The Absent One
Nikolaj Lie Kaas as Carl Morck in Department Q: The Absent One
In the second installment of Department Q, our men Assad and Danish McNulty are back at it, scowering cold case files in their grungy basement outpost. Of course by the time we revisit them, they’ve outworn their hero status and are once again the conspiculously eyed black sheep of the force. They also have a new wide-eyed, perky assistant who proves to be more adept than the ever-skeptical Morck could imagine. And to give our crestfallen protaginist an injection of much-needed humanity, Morck adopts a station house cat whose owner was murdered.

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Remember when John Turturro adopted the cat in The Night Of? Yeah, that’s like a thing in bleak crime cinema. Character development or something…


The case at hand here is a double-murder that took place decades ago at a posh boarding school called Griffendorf. As in all Q films, we’re treated to a healthy dose of murder flashbacks. These ones involve a band of torture-obsessed jocks, who in their blue-eyed, blonde-haired uniformity resemble some Danish offshoot of the Hitler youth. The Griffendorf torture squad leader, Ditlev Pram, comes off as a rapey Draco Malfoy, with his manic, obsessed lover playing the part of Hermioneif Hermione were more like Karla Hamulka. (Sidennote: Despite being easily accessible on Netflix, you really don’t need to watch Karla.)

Laura Prepon playing real-life Canadian murder assistant Karla Hamulka is kind of like if Jennifer Love Hewitt were cast as Aileen Wuornos in Monster.

Laura Prepon playing real-life Canadian murder assistant Karla Hamulka in Karla, AKA what Monster would have been like if Jennifer Love Hewitt had played Aileen Wuornos.

Modern-day Ditlev is a crime boss type, and his menacing portrayal by Pilou Asbæk gives us arguably the most fleshed-out villain in the entire Q series.

Again, we’re treated to a host of strong performances and a multilayered murder-mystery shot mainly in the effectively chilling gloom and doom of a Danish countryside manor. My only complaint here is that Absent One‘s conclusion is arguably a bit less epic than that of the other two Q films.

GRADE: B+ / B
IMDb: 7.1

Department Q: A Conspiracy of Faith
Nikolaj Lie Kaas as Carl Morck in Department Q: A Conspiracy of Faith

Where the second installment provided us with the basic element of a tautif not slighlty predictable, cookie-cuttermurder mystery, the third plunges more into True Detective terrain. Morck and Assad trade religious theology tinged with bleak existentialism while outposted in their squad car.

This transpires whilst a demonic serial killer builds his own Carcosa and kills with unstoppable fury, as if divined by the hand of the dark lord. As in True Detective SE1, Conspiracy of Faith rides the current of a heavy theological battle between the forces of light and dark. While none of this nears the heights of that seminal piece of television, “Q3” is a smarter, more sinister crime story with higher stakes than its predecessors. As such, it also begins to visit the guarded dimensions of Morck’s tortured soul.
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The finale doesn’t exactly shed the die-cast of formulaic predictability that taints the Q series and makes it a slighlty inferior product to, say, the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. Still, the meditative aspects of this film added to the enticing perpetual gloom that shrouds the series make it highly watchable fare for fans of bleak crime-mystery cinema. 

A cast of recognizable Norwegian actors includes Pål Sverre Hagen (the uber-baddie drug kingpin from In Order of Disappearance, playing his demonic role just a bit less hyperbolically here) and Jakob Oftebro (When Animals Dream, In Order of Disappearance, Lilyhammer).

GRADE: B+
IMDb: 7.0

In the end, two main things strike me about why the DQ series is so enjoyable. First, it fills a cinematic flat circle: It has much of the entertainment value of True Detective, but without making viewers feel like they need to write a thesis about the damn thing. Conversely, it’s heady enough to not leave that film of time-wasted disgust on my conscience that happens when I sit through two hours of SVU

The other quality about these films that works to their favor is, I must admit, the same thing I’ve been bitching about for most of this post: a formula. While that formula may not include meaningful character development, it does deliver the same admirable constants: Two entertaining movie detectives, great ensemble casts, memorable depictions of evil, and the same sublime cinematic lens that made The Killing‘s bleak scenery and atmosphere one of its most memorable characters. So yeah, I recommend that you fox with it.

-Sam Adams