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 Strong—marketed to look like a Sunday night CBS Jason Bourne spinoff starring Patrick Wilson—would 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 Causes—buried deep in some subgenre of foreign crime flicks on Netflix—had 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 Trilogy—a 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.”)
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 good—albeit slightly slower and more formulaic—mashup 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
Speaking of The Killing, Department 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.)
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 yang—an 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.
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.
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 Hermione—if Hermione were more like Karla Hamulka. (Sidennote: Despite being easily accessible on Netflix, you really don’t need to watch Karla.)
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
Where the second installment provided us with the basic element of a taut—if not slighlty predictable, cookie-cutter—murder 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.
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).
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.