We should be tired of wondering why Scandinavians are so fascinated with runaway crime — it’s obviously because they have so little of it. Set in Chicago or Bangkok or Juárez, vicious bloodletting might play like wallpaper, but it comes off as almost surreal, and a little gimmicky, when framed against orderly, well-behaved Norwegian politesse. This latest Norge-spree is also completely snowed in, beginning with whitened cemeteries and tripping down a spiral bath of disposed bodies that owes quite a bit to the tang of the Coen brothers’ Fargo.
The first domino is the death of a young airport worker who turns out to be the son of Stellan Skarsgård’s Nils Dickman, a taciturn civil servant in the mountainous middle of the country, where he’s tasked with plowing roads pretty much every day. The kid technically OD’d, but we know (as the dad suspects) that it was murder, and almost immediately Skarsgård’s brooding everyman goes all Liam Neeson on everyone, quickly tracking down the drug-gang punks responsible and killing them one by one. (He’s crafty about it, wrapping the corpses in chain-link fence and dumping them into a glacial river system so the fish can get at them.)
The movie halts for a few moments with a memorial title card for each body, beginning with Dickman’s son, as if each killing were another twist to a joke the director hasn’t told us. (Director Hans Petter Moland’s movies, like 2010’s A Somewhat Gentle Man, tend toward the cynically smirksome.) But things get messier as the gang’s drug-smuggling kingpin, Greven (Pål Sverre Hagen), decides to take action against whoever is killing his employees — not some lone vigilante, he thinks, but the Serbian competition, who of course gear up and strike back in kind. Hagen’s turn as a stylish, fussy, unblinking nutcase in designer coats and a ponytail juices up the second half, sometimes suggesting a Will Arnett shtick. At the same time, Skarsgård’s avenger is closing in on Greven and his son as the Serbs (led by crusty patriarch Bruno Ganz) descend, and everyone, almost, ends up dead, with plenty of memorial title cards to go around.
As homicidal-misunderstanding cascades go, it’s slick and implausible and unsurprising and, with its relentless drifts and snow-moving machinery, about as serotonin-depleting as you’d expect from around the 62nd parallel. (Your Trump-election daydreams about moving to Norway will fade.) Skarsgård mopes around throughout, largely ceding the film to the zoo of supporting actors, all of whom are TV-type crooks in the familiar post-Coen/Tarantino style and do not help the story’s lack of conviction. The script is a good deal less mysterious, at least, than the odd original title, Kraftidioten (“power idiot”), the coinage of which has even my Norwegian friends scratching their heads.