Blue Detective: “Trapped” avalanches Iceland to the forefront of Nordic Noir

ólafur darri ólafsson trapped icelandic tv show
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The mining is in high-gear in the Nordic Noir landscape. Where Fortitude broke the ice and tunneled into its festering recesses, creator Baltasar Kormákur’s Trapped thrives on creating its own living hell within the crevasse of an isolated Northern Icelandic port village. It’s in this frigid microcosm that a brilliantly acted, tense and bleak murder-mystery unfoldsfinally giving the quiet island-country a voice amongst one of the most alluring bleak film movements on the planet.

To be fair, the sublime, rolling glacial terrain of Iceland has long graced our screens. But, as location spots, its beauty lent itself more as a geographical ghostwriter to foreign and fictional lands. Consider the visually arresting opening sequence of Prometheus, or John Snow being informed of his limited mental acumen by his beloved, robin-haired Wildling. These scenes took place in Iceland, but the eventsas we know them cinematicallyreally unfolded in Planet LV-223, and “North of the Wall.” Heck, even the aforementioned Fortitude was filmed mainly in Iceland, even though the show is supposed to take place in Norway.

Fortitude season one stanley tucci

Fortitude‘s phenomenal first season included one of the best finales ever seen in a detective show. Its second season was serviceable.

Point being, Trapped is one of the first pieces of crime cinema to reach global audiences with a certified Icelandic export stamp on it. But more on that laterlet’s get to the plot.

Trapped begins with fire and iceits opening scene depicting a flashback of a young girl burned alive, followed shortly thereafter by a headless, limbless corpse being pulled out of the freezing ocean by stunned fishermen.

Ólafur Darri Ólafsson trapped tv series iceland corpse

Lend me a hand…

As soon as local police start investigating the cadaver, a massive storm hits and the tiny port town is snowed in. This prevents the swinging-dick, bigwig police from Reykjavík to offer their assistance. It also becomes clear that the foul play is linked to a massive ferry that’s just docked. The ship’s shady captain, a corrupt mayor, a fishy hotelier and a slimy underling politico are just a few in the Clue-like assemblage of suspects that three small town cops must sift through to put the pieces together.

The most complex performance comes from the American-born veteran actor Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (recognizable from from his role as the grimy, prophetic meth dealer who delivered one of the baddest pieces of dialogue in one of True Detective Se1’s best scenes). His detective Andri plays the lead as a man with the look and softness of an oversized teddy bear, but also the fierce, hunting instincts of a polar bear.

Ólafur Darri Ólafsson true detective trapped

“You got a demon, little man. And I don’t like your face. It makes me wanna do things to it.”

Other compelling performances come from Andri’s estranged wife Agnes (Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir), visiting from out-of-town with a new boytoy in tow. As the storm shutters everyone in, Andri’s condition becomes even more pitiable as he endures his wife sharing a bedroom with boytoy down the hall from the couch he crashes on.

As the father of the incinerated girl, Pálmi Gestsson also turns in a complex performance as a man whose very existence is a rumination on grief and vengeance. In a show that doesn’t leave loose ends, his story comes full circle through a wicked stroke of poetic justice that ends in Gestsson delivering one of Trapped’s most profound and poignant scenes.

One last performance worth mentioning is that of Baltasar Breki Samper as Hjörturthe mysterious, scar-faced boyfriend of the dead girl. As he broodingly mopes and dopes around the little village in an oversized hoodie, Hjörtur becomes both in character traits and appearance the tortured embodiment of an Icelandic Jesse Pinkman.

jesse-pinkman-baltasar-breki-samper

      “Life’s a bitch…”                                 “Yeah, bitch.”

Now back to the interplay between Trapped and its country of origin. Despite that Trapped is Iceland’s highest-budgeted series on record, it doesn’t go to lengths to boast about, or showcase, a sense of geographical or national identity. The bulk of the series is filmed in the small, Northern port city of Siglufjörðura place removed from the tourism bustle that has hit the nation by storm in recent years. And while a small amount of the show’s activity takes place in Reykjavík, Trapped isn’t concerned with providing a cinematographic tour of its capitol. A brief cityscape shot is providedseemingly for no other purpose than narrative clarity.

blue lagoon iceland trapped series

Iceland’s stunning Blue Lagoon—a tourist draw Trapped could give two shits about.

This non-geo-centric approach is a departure from great crime shows like Breaking Bad, of which Vince Gilligan described its Albuqerque location as a “central character.” It’s also fitting, in multiple ways. It would seem counterintuitive to provide lingering, aerials of Iceland’s magnificently sublime glaciers and sprawling wilderness expanse in a show centered around a concept of claustrophobia. As a straightforward, bleak and rugged crime drama, Trapped is also under no obligation to kowtow to atmospheric localism to deliver the visceral gut punch it provides. And frankly, it doesn’t need it. This minimalist approach simply doesn’t hold the aesthetic appeal of similar dark, detective shows like Fortitude or The Killing.

That’s not to say that the cinematography is inept or ineffective in capturing a distinct feeling of placequite the opposite. It just so happens thatoutside of the show’s Icelandic dialogue and localeit could most likely have the same effect were it filmed in Alaska, the Antarctic, etc. Trapped is undoubtedly an Icelandic show. It’s just not unabashedly one.Ólafur Darri Ólafsson the shiningAs for narrative drawbacks, Trapped’s only one is that with such a large cast of characters and such a sprawling murder mystery, it can be difficult to remember who some of the side characters are when they’re mentioned in conjunction with investigations. The show could be difficult to follow if one didn’t simply binge itnot that each character doesn’t have a meaningful role to play, or that plotlines are overly complex. Someone involved in the production may have caught on to this, as each episode is prefaced by an appreciatvely throrough recap of events (necessary even when bingeing).

All said, Trapped is Nordic Noir at its bestthanks in large part to Ólafsfon’s standout performance, a well-crafted and resolved narrative, and an introspective ability to work within the emotional expanse of its geographically limited confines.

GRADE: A / A-
IMDb: 8.2

-Sam Adams

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Fifty Shades of Bleak: The Fall Returns to Netflix Instant

the fall jamie dornan gillian anderson
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[NOTE: No big spoilers for Season Two, but refer back to this post if you missed Season One.]

Unfortunately, the above image is not an official promo for the BBC’s steamy Belfast-BTK series The Fall. It’s actually more of an, um, abstract dream collage representation of what Season Two might evoke to viewers. (Gillian Anderson’s character keeps a dream diary, and Jamie Dornan’s does nudie collage scrapbooking, so I don’t think I’m reaching that far.)

In that Season One recommendation, I mentioned that the show was phenomenal, but that it left us with what I most eloquently described as “an asshole of a cliffhanger.”

the fall season one

“Just gonna drive away in me car with me homely wife and make yeh fuckers wait a few years…”

Without revealing too much, the six new episodes added to Netflix Instant do a nice job of picking up the pieces, albeit at a pace that might inspire some to launch their own killing spree on BBC producers—provided this were a weekly series and not delivered all in one fell swoop. (Recent medical reports show that Netflix is effectively curing ADD through its wonderful full-season-all-at-once template.)

To be fair, the slow build-up doesn’t really come in the form of extraneous plot lines (here’s looking at you, Boardwalk Empire‘s countless hours of Margaret Schroeder fretting over minutiae).

Margaret Schroeder annoying

“The cheeldrin need their day care and I don’t particularly like these flowers and perhaps I’ll go throw a fuss at the dress shop or get tah screwin’ the Irish lad who works for me husband or some such…”

Season Two begins a few weeks down the road from where Season One left off. Paul Spector, AKA “The Belfast Strangler,” (a dreamy, asphyxiation-fetished Jamie Dornan) is still at large. The search quickly hones in on him, and a season-long game of cat and mouse between Spector and investigator Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), unfolds.

If you wanted resolution, there’s definitely more here than in Season One. But the show seems to struggle with the main  narrative predicament that The Killing did in its first few seasons (rest assured, this is a much more carefully constructed and fully realized series than what was going down in the Pacific Northwest.)

the killing holder

A question The Killing took about 12 episodes too many to answer…

That predicament, as I’m sure it has been posed in countless BBC screenwriters’ meetings, is, “When the killer’s caught, what the fuck do we do with this show?”

I’ll leave any speculations on that question in the hands of the viewer. I will say that it’s to the show’s credit how it manages to stay engagingly suspenseful even as Season Two’s narrative meanders along. I should underline that this season of The Fall is much more of a criminal suspense show, and much less of a bloody thriller.

That last note brings up an issue that one could say is either a narrative fault of Season Two or a moral fault of its viewers (present company included). Essentially, it’s simply not as compelling to watch as Season One, and much of that has to do with a lack of, well, murder.

A large degree of this show’s allure comes from the fact that Paul Spector often blurs the antogonist/protagonist line. Don’t get me wrong—he’s a really, really bad guy. But c’mon, his shirtless-prone character often seems less like the BTK Killer and more like the equivalent of Ted Bundy in a Calvin Klein ad.

Jamie Dornan Calvin Klein The Fall

Jamie Dornan: Just your prototypical, run-of-the-mill serial killer

The point? As fans of crime shows, we are implicit in wanting to see how much bad guys can get away with. We like it when the body count rises; the deadlier the game, the higher the level of intrigue. And our baddie really does not get away with much at all for the majority of Season Two.

So yeah, I respect The Fall for being a really good crime show that succeeds without pandering to its audiences’ base bloodlust. But the fact remains that we still came to watch a serial killer show. Season Two leaves that desire wanting.

The series seems very aware of this predicament. It even builds it into a dialogue exchange as Gibson watches a video of Spector in the midst of nefarious acts:

Spector, to the camera: “Why the fuck are you watching this? You sick shit. What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Gibson: “Who [are] you talking to? Yourself? Me? People who like to read and watch programs about people like you?”

In a stylistic touch, Gibson appears to be breaking the fourth wall as she asks this question. OK, The Fall—you got us. We are guilty of, uh, being fascinated by your serial killer show.
Breaking Bad you got me Bryan Cranston heisenberg

But here I am pointing out a lot of faults in what I think is actually one of the most intelligent and compelling series currently filming. So let’s get to some of the pros.

Gillian Anderson, for one, is bar-none one of the best actors working in television. The icy portrayal she gave in Season One becomes more fleshed out here as the show delves into her sexuality, morality and—god forbid—sentimentality. “You can see the world in that way if you want,” she says to a colleague who calls Spector an evil monster. “You know it makes no sense to me. Men like Spector are all too human, too understandable. He’s not a monster. He’s just a man.”

For a character who maintains poise in her profession by playing the one-note, sinister, head-motherfucker-in-charge, Anderson infuses an uncanny dramatic range into the arena of emotional subtlety.

gillian anderson the fall

Give this woman a friggin’ Emmy, already!

As for Dornan, he does a fine job, but the underpinnings of his psyche don’t exactly reach Lecterian heights. He’s either angry or manipulatively heartfelt or vacant—and that’s about his emotional range. It would be nice to see a bit more.

And while we’re on the subject of Dornan, let’s address the handcuffed, spread-eagled elephant in the room. What I’m talking about, of course, is that in less than a month from Season Two debuting, Fifty Shades of Grey will hit theaters.

Let me put the twisted sickness of that in perspective. In The Fall, Dornan plays a man who uses his handsome wiles to gain the trust of women and then bind them with rope and perform erotic choking acts on them. In Fifty Shades… well, I know nothing about Fifty Shades, but I’d imagine he does the same exact thing. Only difference? Christian Grey is a sex symbol that will have women lining up around the block on Valentine’s Day. Paul Spector, on the other hand, is a murderous rapist.

I wonder if Dornan got the part when some Hollywood exec was watching The Fall and thought, “Hey, this guy’s hot and really does the BDSM thing well. Let’s just cast him in a role where he does the same thing without killing his sex partners.” It would kind of be like if Anthony Hopkins had followed up his role of Dr. Lecter by taking Robin Williams’ place in Patch Adams.

patch adams hopkins silence of the lambs

“Would you like a bedtime story, Clareeeece?”

As far as what else keeps The Fall moving, its creator Alan Cubitt altruistically gives several of Season One’s role players much bigger parts. Spector’s 16-year-old worshipper Katie (rather creepily sexed up by the 22-year-old Aisling Franciosi) becomes a key player in Spector’s criminal movements. Her performance and those of other more-seasoned actors are all well played. The only issue is that Anderson and Dornan dominate this show so heavily, it’s difficult for anything that’s not centered on their characters to carry as much intrigue.

All said, despite a slower pace and my nervousness that The Fall could easily go the wayward route of The Killing if it doesn’t figure itself out, it remains perhaps the best current crime series this side of True Detective. Queue it up without further delay.

SEASON TWO GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 8.2

-Sam Adams

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

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Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) has quickly become the Internet’s answer to Klonopin. Unfortunately, I don’t happen to be among those lulled into a happy place by videos of 15-year-old girls whispering about how it feels to wash their hands with a bar of texturized chamomile soap. No, my go-to for bedtime relaxation comes more in the form of films and shows that rely heavily on, say, depictions and existential conversations predicated upon bodily dismemberment.

Buffalo Bill

The title of an ASMR video I would watch

Why? I have no clue. And for the moment, this isn’t about why (although I’m sure I’ll have to tackle that at some point). The underlying crux of this blog series is to foster a space for recommending and discussing some of the best and most gruesomely soothing films/shows out there. If you consider Winter’s Bone, True Detective and The Descent to be among the past decade’s seminal moving-picture achievements—and are simply craving more, but don’t where to turn—then welcome.

If you’re as obsessed with these genres as I am, you likely know that spending half an hour on Google attempting to find something that fits within their parameters is, nine times out of ten, an exercise in futility.

To that point, I’m simply sick and tired of every “Best on Netflix you might not have seen” list trying to convince me that Drinking Buddies, Don Jon and Prince Avalanche aren’t somehow going to make me head to Hollywood and craft a Buffalo Bill-style human-skin coat out of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the Duplass Brothers and Diablo Cody.

Seriously, I will wear that shit in public to boycott the premiere of Greta Gerwig and John Kransinki’s newest project about a couple of upper-middle class white people who wear flannel and resolve emotional issues to the tune of ten Kimya Dawson songs and then learn something about themselves. (It’s still in the works, but I believe they’ve tentatively titled it We Are Here Now and Were There.)

Indie trash

Yeah, yeah, go fuck yourself.

I digress. What we’re talking about here is your dark minds benefiting from the rotten fruits of my labor. Said “labor” being perhaps an unhealthy amount of man-hours browsing reddit subpages over the past year to provide you with some of the sickest, most brilliant diamonds in the rough that you can access through Netflix Instant. Why this specific portal, you ask? Because everyone and their grandmother’s fuckin’ cousin has it, I respond.

So, without further ado, I think it’s time we talk about Kevin… er, shows and movies. Let’s talk about shows and movies. Here’s our genre for the first installment:

BBC (BADASS BASTARDS AND COPPERS):

Peaky Blinders
Fuck, I thought at first. Cillian Murphy as the leader of a Birmingham street gang that slashes peoples’ eyes via razor-embedded scally caps? It all sounded good outside of Cillian Murphy. While he was great in The 28th Hour (and sure, he was Scarecrow in the Dark Knight films), the guy is prettier than the love child of a young Rob Lowe and Kiera Knightley donning a powder blue bunny suit. So, me asks, how the fuck is Cillian gonna pull this off?

No worries, mate. By the end of the first season, I’d rather cross paths with Bane in a dark alley than serve the menacing Thomas Shelby with an improper shoeshine. Oh, and speaking of Bane, Tom Hardy enters in the forthcoming Season 2. My knickers are already wet.

cillian murphy

The baddest pretty boy since Gosling in Drive !

About that title: Yeah, it sounded pretty goofy to me at first—as it might to many Yank viewers. Rest assured, Peaky Blinders is not about a middle-school boy with a hot neighbor and a pair of binoculars.

So how would I sum it all up? It’s essentially a hybrid of Sons of Anarchy and Boardwalk Empire, with a little splash of Gangs of New York. Thomas Shelby is Jax Teller, if Jax Teller operated out of Birmingham in the early 20th Century. He’s a young, dashing, masterfully calculating gang leader who couldn’t tell you what fear was if it bit him in the ass. But along with the calculation, there’s some stoicism, which is why I also see a bit of Nucky Thompson in him. And if this show catches on, a whole new wave of Jimmy Doherty-esque haircuts will be lurking around a hipster cocktail lounge near you.

peaky blinders

Party like it’s 1919…

As for drawbacks, it’s completely overstylized—almost to the point of camp—but that’s also what makes it kind of fun. Why not play a Nick Cave ditty as a smartly-dressed chap walks through the streets with flames billowing at his back while obsequious townfolk quiver in his wake? This is exactly what Hell on Wheels was trying to pull off (and “Red Right Hand” is one of the best intro songs since The Wire tapped Tom Waits). Perhaps Peaky Blinders ain’t as highbrow as the first two seasons of Boardwalk (let’s be realistic, that show went to shit), but it is some bloody and fiendishly good fun.

SEASON ONE GRADE: A-
IMDb: 8.5

Happy Valley
Many bemoan the downfall of the American version of The Killing after that horrible cliffhanger in the first season. Fair enough, but I stuck with the show simply because, well, it was gloriously dark. And I have yet to encounter better cinematographic use of a geographical environment this side of Breaking Bad or Twin Peaks. Oh, and Holder was just one hilarious, bad-ass honky. 

The man, the myth, the Holder

The man, the myth, the Holder

The reason I bring up The Killing is because of how strikingly similar it is in theme and general aura to Happy Valley. Detective Catherine Cawood is a slightly mentally off-kilter, divorced female cop with a dark past and a son who intermittently hates her. She also lives in a town that is perpetually gray, is constantly trying to quit smoking, likes sleeping with married men and is, despite her uncontrollable moodswings, highly efficient and always right when everyone else doubts her. Sarah Linden, anyone? (Speaking of striking similarities to other shows, there’s this turtley little weasel of an accountant who looks like Wormtail from Harry Potter and is the embodiment of Walter White back in his Mr. Chips days. Great character.)

Unlike The Killing, the six-episode-long Season One of Valley delivers. I mean, it fucking delivers. And between involuntary smack injections, basement rape (yeah, that stuff’s hard even for me to watch) and dousing children with gasoline, grimness is Happy Valley’s oh-so-sunny calling card.

"Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?"

It ain’t exactly, “Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?”

While we’re on the subject of female-detective BBC shows, if you’re choosing between this and Top of the Lake, take the advice of the great Bob Dylan, babe, and don’t think twice. Apart from one great character, Top of the Lake is pretty much the bottom of the well when it comes to BBC cop series.

Final note on why you should watch Happy Valley: The fella that plays the pseudo-psycopathic Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton) is the second-coming of Tom Hardy. Guy has serious acting chops, and he’s certainly the sexiest sexual deviant psychokiller since Jamie Dornan in The Fall. Speaking of which…

SEASON ONE GRADE: A
IMDb: 8.5

The Fall
Perhaps the hardest thing to get past in the first episode of The Fall is just how flawlessly fucking fair Gillian Anderson’s skin is. That skin is fairer than a cup of tea sipped quietly by Monet in a field of wheat on a fine spring day. I mean c’mon, she was Scully before Vince Gilligan was out of his screenwriting diapers. … But yeah, after that Duplass Brothers skin-coat thing, maybe I’ve been talking about skin too much. Fun fact: Did you know that Ed Gein lived 30 minutes from where I’m writing this? (Don’t worry, I don’t have an epidermal fixation or any skeletons in my closet. I’m just being tongue-in… whatever-you-call-that-space-beside-the-teeth-where-there-used-to-be-flesh.)

The Fall

“Why yes, I believe that is me in The Birth of Venus.”

Moving on, The Fall is yet another grim, tension-riddled cop-thriller with a bad-ass female lead investigating a spate of killings. (For whatever reason, feminism seems to be alive and well in the cop-vs.-serial killer genre.) While there are any number of comparisons that could be made between The Fall, The Killing and Happy Valley (the mood-setting bleakness of Belfast, say), this show does women coppers the service of a portrayal that’s the exact opposite of that “off-kilter and mentally distressed” blueprint.

Gillian Anderson is brilliant, and her icy depiction of investigator Stella Gibson leaves little room for sentiment, nonsense or anything other than heady police work. That’s good. Because the sadist she’s tracking (Jamie Dornan) is a perverted family man who gets off on choking his victims to death and then scrapbooking about them with artwork that is unsettlingly exquisite.

As the body count piles and the investigation deepens, the tension rises to a pitch that makes The Fall arguably as engrossing as True Detective. Of the three shows I’ve discussed, this one is probably the best. The only disappointment is that Season One is criminally brief (5 episodes) and ends with an asshole of a cliffhanger.

And by the way, John Oliver can shove it. Jamie Dornan is so my Christian.

SEASON ONE GRADE: A-
IMDb: 8.2


Final note:
Consider all three of the aforementioned shows as far superior to BBC-via-Netflix Instant alternatives like Luther, Sherlock and Top of the Lake. British Stringer Bell, er, Idris Elba is great in Luther, but the show lacks the depth of Happy Valley and The Fall, and the entertainment value of Peaky Blinders. And by “depth,” I’m talking about that intangible quality that distinguishes a great cable show like Breaking Bad or The Wire from, say, a regular-channel favorite like Law & Order (again, another topic I’ll save for a rainy day). As for Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch exudes a particular brand of smug that just pisses me off, and his Holmes offends my boyhood notions of a beloved literary character. The show is also completely overstylized—just not in a good way, like the way Peaky Blinders makes me eager to sew razor blades into my cap.

-Sam Adams