When Swedish film distributors were marketing The Life of Brian in 1979, they offered a sly dig at their morose Scandinavian cousins to sell their product. Monty Python’s opus was brilliant, they said. ‘The film so funny it was banned in Norway,’ screamed the self-satisfied quip.
Norwegians have often been at the back of the queue when it comes to the Nordic-cool accolades so popular at present: not as hip as the Swedes; less refined than the Danes; sullen squares next to the zany Finns. Oil wealth, snow and serviceable footballers are about the only things we lazily associate with our neighbours across the North Sea.
As with most stereotypes, of course, this is wildly inaccurate and nothing should undermine such silly notions more than Hans Petter Moland’s outstanding In Order of Disappearance. Bleak and chilly, this revenge thriller is a bloodthirsty, snowbound noir laced with a comic thread as black as pitch.
Stellan Skarsgård plays Nils Dickman, a resourceful Swedish immigrant who drives a snow-plough out on the vast tundra where he enjoys the respect of all in his small community. Unfortunately, that humble existence is cruelly interrupted when his son is murdered by a drug baron’s underlings and the useless police believe it to be nothing other than a tragic overdose.
Nils knows different of course and within the first 20 minutes he has already customised his hunting rifle, snuffed out two bad guys and thrown their bodies over a waterfall. As vaguely ludicrous as this sounds, there is never less than a knowing smirk lurking on the edges of Skarsgård’s watchful visage and one cannot help but feel righteous as this angel of vengeance – lacking any discernible history of violence, though he is far from a bumbling hick – unleashes himself, like a cruel Arctic wind, on a criminal empire lacking any notion of his existence.
Moland has tremendous fun with this unashamedly pulpy material, ranging the largely impassive Nils, bordering on psychotic in his own quiet way, against preening chrome-plated villain Greven (Pål Sverre Hagen). The first half may invoke the ghost of Charles Bronson rather than Leslie Nielsen but, by its finale, this is clearly a film refusing to take itself too seriously. Nils ignites a mob war; the body count racks up. Throughout this anarchy Moland cheekily sprinkles in sombre title cards bearing the departed’s name and a relevant religious symbol.
Given its icy setting and that undeniably irreverent air, Kraftidioten (to use its native title: The Prize Idiot) displays more than a hint of shared DNA with the Coens’ Minnesotan crime epic, Fargo. In the scene where Nils and his wife view the corpse of their son, there is a spartan inelegance to the manner in which their child is levered up and down on a sterile tray. The Coens would be proud indeed of such a chillingly awkward subversion of human decency.
That said, while the American masters tend to imbue their pictures with a degree of sweet innocence, Moland has no such intention here. The cast helpfully buys into this creeping chaos; Nils is the unmoving instigator, Grieven the petulant prey. The latter is a particular scene-chewing treat with Hagen’s murderous vegan overlord sporting sharp suits, good hair and a burning hatred of his ex-wife (Borgen’s Birgitte Hjort Sørensen).
Beyond that, Bruno Ganz pops up as the equally ruthless boss of the local Serbian mafia. Ganz has become something of a parody in recent years, thanks to his much edited rant in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall, but he remains an actor of true gravitas.
Just as outstanding is Skarsgård, a man with little to lose. The Swede, who has long straddled the worlds of European cinema and Hollywood, enjoys himself immensely in the lead role, terrorising a murky underworld for which he has only disdain. The cost, however, is high. To realise his wrath he must sell his soul and no matter how arch the tone, there is nothing amusing about that.
An edited version of this article was first published here.