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

the oath iceland movie kormakur
Standard

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.

colin_farrell_baltasar_kormakur

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.

headhunters aksel hennie

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.

hera_hilmar_the_oath

“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

Advertisements

Family, Madder: Season Two of Bloodline Gets Bigger, Better and Bloodier

bloodline season two john rayburn
Standard

[SPOILERS ahead if you haven’t seen Season One]

If you watched Season One of Bloodline and are thinking of getting your toes wet with the newly released Season Two, here are a few things to know. First, you’re still gonna have to fast-forward through that godwaful opening credit song every episode. Second, the entire season is predicated on the question “what do you want;” apparently the Florida Keys’ answer to Mike Royko’s Chicagoism “Ubi Est Mea?” Third, despite a somewhat-noticeable absence of the two best actors that were on the show (Ben Mendelsohn and Sam Shepard), Season Two is unequivocally much better than the first (a season that without Mendelsohn would have been the textbook definition of “middling”).

bloodline danny ben mendelsohn

Ben Mendelsohn, the greatest thing since sliced Daniel Day Lewis

Speaking of great acting performances, remember Kevin—the paranoid, skittish cokehead brother from Season One? Turns out Norbert Leo Butz is one hell of an actor. I’m not saying he quite fills Mendelsohn’s shoes, but old boy might just have a forthcoming Emmy to add to his stockpile of Tony awards. Even Kyle Chandlerthe grown-man’s Dean Cain, the political drama stand-in for Matthew Fox, the guy who would leave his second beer half-drank at a holiday barbecuedemonstrates what can only be described as “range” as his patriarchal detective John Rayburn takes on an increasing level of moral ambiguity.

norbert leo butz bloodline

We need to talk about Kevin…

As for other acting performances, Sissy Spacek is as good as ever and a newly cast John Leguizamo is downright creepy as a sleazy small-time blackmailer. In fact, one of the great achievements of this season is how seamlessly it weaves together a tapestry of ever-growing characters, and does so without dampening the effect of a taut thriller (note to the abomination that was True Detective Season Two). There are at least 20 meaningful roles in this season of Bloodline, few unnecessary, and all somehow intertwined in an ever-grim network of lies, murder and corruption.

To satiate viewers who wonder what happened to some of the better characters killed off in Season One, the series also goes to great length to employ flashback sequences that are a far cry from the distorted, garden-variety fare found in, say, Dexter. And speaking of that other show about murder and lies in South Florida, Season Two of Bloodline is far more heady and compelling than anything Dexter managed in its later seasons (they even stole Detective Batista and made him into the less-slapstick Sherriff Aguirre).

david zayas in dexter and bloodline

Not like David Zayas is being typecast or anything…

The main draws for me in Season One were the all-out grimness, Ben Mendelsohn and the fantastic use of the show’s seedy geographic setting. But really… Ben Mendelsohn. Other than that, it wasn’t much more than an above-average crime thriller that tipped its hand way too early. Those original factors still hold ground here (even with Mendelsohn’s diminished presence), but what we also get is a much more sophisticated show. A show that seems to haveunlike the Rayburn clanlearned from its past mistakes.

The writing is better, the narrative is more dynamically advanced, and characters other than Danny are actually given room to act outside of the Season One family archetypes that arguably constrained actors like Chandler and Butz.

I do have one major beef with this season, however. Where the first gave us full resolution (despite telegraphing it to the detriment of that whole “taut thriller” thing), now that the show is established, creators Glenn Kessler, Todd A. Kessler and Daniel Zelman seem to be fine with the more commercially driven formula of leaving us wanting. People might disagree with me on this point, but to them and to the creators I simply say, “Remember The Killing!”

GRADE: A- / B+
IMDb: 8.3 (composite series score)

SEASON ONE RECAP:

-Sam Adams

The best of Netflix Instant if bleak, thrilling cinema is your ASMR: Part IV

Headhunters
Standard

For the meager contingent of American viewers not averse to subtitles, Netflix Instant has a king’s ransom of great suspense flicks (and horror, for that matter). I’ll cover some disturbingly sinister Korean flicks in an upcoming post, but for now let’s focus on Northern and Western Europe, the birthplaces of two of the best modern thrillers you’re likely to see. From a Norwegian art thief battling a Game of Thrones villain to France’s answer to The Fugitive, these picks just might change your attitude on how badass things can be in the lands of reindeer and berets.

Headhunters
headhunters
Norway has become a relatively quiet and peaceful place ever since the vikings battled and killed off the last of the trolls in the 1400s. Known chiefly for lutefisk, good healthcare and really nice people, it’s not exactly the most thrilling spot on the globe. However, Norway did produce the great author Knut Hamsun (literary father of John Fante and Charles Bukowski), and has more recently been churning out some eerily good cinema (TrollhunterDead Snow).

keef hates lutefisk

Lutefisk makes malort taste like Hawaiian Punch.

Headhunters (2011) is a brilliant thriller that significantly bolsters Norway’s list of hallmark achievements. It tells the story of Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), a corporate job recruiter (“headhunter” is a fitting entendre here) who moonlights as an art thief. Aksel is a deceptive, philandering little man who’s main concern in life is making enough money to keep up the lavish lifestyle that he believes will keep his Norse goddess of a wife (Synnøve Macody Lund) from leaving him. His concern is palpable. After all, wifey could be a doppelgänger for a younger Heidi Klum, whereas Roger looks more like the middle-aged brother of Christopher Walken and Ron Weasley. (#nodisrespecttochristopherwalken)

weasley

Photo courtesy of norwegianancestry.com

Headhunters—or as I’ve retitled it, The Roger Brown Affair—spirals into a thrilling manhunt after Roger decides to steal an original Rubens painting from a mysterious, dashing man he’s introduced to at wifey’s art show. The “victim” in question is Clas Greve (Kingslayer from Game of Thrones, who plays Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in real life). Clas is an ex-special ops assassin who specializes in military tracking methods. From here, things literally go to shit for Roger (see: the best use of an outhouse since Slumdog Millionaire).

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau

Slay on, Slayah!

The game of cunning deceit that unravels is filled with striking imagery, non-stop suspenseful action and some great tongue-in-cheek Norwegian humor (you might notice a Lillyhammer cameo, if you bothered to watch that halfway-decent show). All said, Headhunters is a bloody thrill ride that’s some of the most damn elegant popcorn entertainment on Netflix Instant. Plus, it’s got the fucking Kingslayer going balls out as a special ops manhunter, for Chrissakes! Almost makes me want to down some lutefisk and hop a jet to Norway.

IMDb: 7.6
Grade: A-

Tell No One
tell no one

If I had to make a list of the top ten thrillers of the last decade, it would include the 2006 French film Tell No One. That may sound bold, so if you can’t take my word for it, take the word of Sir Michael Caine. Actually, Master Wayne’s Cockney butler listed director Guillame Canet’s film among his all-time top ten—regardless of genre. I wouldn’t go that far, but I would say that Tell No One is easily one of the best modern movies on Netflix Instant.

michael caine

…says, “Watch this bloody film already!”

Thematically, it falls somewhere between The Fugitive and, I don’t know, The Bridges of Madison County ? I write that hesitantly because romantic movies ain’t really my area of expertise. My idea of a great love story story would be something along the lines of Leaving Las Vegas or Blue Valentine, movies that most normal folk would call more depressing than being locked in a closet with a mime.

blue valentine

“You have to understand, honey. This is my way of making it up to all the guys who sat through The Notebook.”

Don’t get me wrong—this movie is definitely bleak and morbid enough to fit within the not-so friendly confines of this blog series. But part of what makes it so great is that not only is it a masterful thriller, but it’s a masterful thriller that somehow pulls off a love story with enough soul to live up to Otis Redding’s version of “Your Precious Love” (as played during an opening scene).

This rarely occurs in a genre wherein love is almost always used as an ancillary tool, carelessly crapped in to appease the Hollywood formula (did you really give two shits about what happened to Jason Bourne’s girlfriend?). Here, love manifests itself in a way that only makes the quest of our protagonist more thrilling, more suspenseful. The stakes are that much higher simply because of the vicariously personal, life-altering possibilities tied to our man’s mission.

Said man is Alexandre Beck (François Cluzet, aka the French Dustin Hoffman). Beck is a doctor whose wife was murdered eight years ago as they went night-swimming in a lake they used to frequent as children, when their romance began. He’s a good man, but he’s gloomily pensive and hasn’t really moved on from his wife’s death (he visits her parents every year on the anniversary of the occasion). Out of the blue, he gets an email from a woman claiming to be his dead wife. And that’s where an exceedingly complex plot begins to take root. 

hoffman Cluzet

Hoffman (L) in Rain Main, a movie about a guy who counts toothpicks and suffers from autism. Cluzet (R) in the lesser-known Le Raine Man, a movie about a guy who counts cigarettes and suffers from B.O.

There’s not much more that can be said without divulging details of a narrative in which every intricate detail counts. What can be said is that Cluzet’s performance is remarkable, that this film has one of the best chase sequences I can think of, and that I haven’t been so smitten with anything French since I was a 12-year-old schoolboy in love with a Provençal exchange student.

Maybe that’s a good way to end, because Tell No One is about young love, everlasting love and what happens when the two are shattered. (And also what revelations can be found when you start picking up the jagged little pieces.) If you’re sick of me waxing mushy, remember that this is one of the best (and most suspenseful) thrillers you’ll ever see. And even if you don’t trust me, it’s not like you’ll turn down a sniff from My Cocaine.

IMDb: 7.6
Grade: A

-Sam Adams