Body Count in White Powder
Dir. Hans Peter Moland, Norway/Sweden/Denmark, 2013,
Now in US theaters
Revenge is a dish best served cold — very cold in this film.
A young man is murdered by a coke dealer in the northern remote stretches of Norway, where white powder is something that you ski in. His father, Nils (Stellan Skarsgard), is a dutiful snow plow driver who’s the model employee in his quiet town, its “citizen of the year.” There’s heartbreaking grief for the family, but for Nils there’s also honor at stake, and a crime to be avenged.
Thus begins the drama that the title suggests in this saga from the director Hans Peter Moland. The disappearances are the killers who will die before Nils finds the killer-in-chief who ordered his son’s elimination. As the layers of the onion are peeled off, or as the bodies form a path from flunky to kingpin, from foot-soldier to leader, we are taken into the society and the socio-pathologies of northern Norwegian life, which now includes the drug trade.
I’ll venture a bad joke, and say that there’s a snowball effect at work here as the body count rises. The inert local cops – lazy as law enforcement tends to be in films where an everyday citizen takes justice into his own hands – can’t figure it out.
There’s a lot of Dirty Harry, Death Wish, Fargo, Reservoir Dogs etc. in this revenge saga, although it’s the humor of the not-another-one settling of scores that also keeps you with In Order of Disappearance. What begins as chilling realism in the frozen north ascends (rather than devolves) into genre satire.
You’re prepared for that film-quoting and smirking, but not for the staggering visual power of In Order of Disappearance. This is a majestic landscape, and between scenes of murder, intimidation and revenge killing, Nils roars through the near-infinite landscape of white powder in his snowplow, fueled by grief for his lost son. The palette stands the notion of a dark comedy on its head. Futility rarely looks so grand. Nor does the disposal of bodies. Nils’s trick is to throw them over a waterfall that drops farther than the eye can see. As each corpse disappears into a mist, the effect is too elegiac for it to be just another body.
Skarsgard and script that combines dread and wit in its characters turn the ingredients of a Nordic crime story into a mission of raw dignity with serial comic crescendos. As the everyman who finds his personal road rage as a fuming avenger at the wheel of the snowplow, Skarsgard sets up dramatic turns by Bruno Ganz, in the unanticipated role of a rival Albanian coke gang leader fighting for market share in the middle of nowhere. (Weren’t the Albanians the ones who were supposed to be obsessed by honor?) Even more exaggerated as the saga snowballs into Grand Guignol is Pal Sverre Hagen as ruthless Greven, aka The Count, a vain foppish rich kid who wears his hair in a man-bun, eats vegan food, decorates his ur-modern house with silly contemporary art, and directs the local coke concession. Calling this character despicable is like saying that winters in northern Sweden are cold. Birgitte Hjort Sørensen adds to the contempt for this villain as the angry wife who’s divorcing him.
In Order of Disappearance brings the scale of real cinema to a tale of inner anguish. It’s chilling enough, in its fury and its humor, to be the right movie for late summer.
And beyond – a US remake is on the way, with Moland directing and Liam Neeson in the lead
I spoke to director Hans Peter Moland and to Stellan Skarsgard about a revenge that’s so intense it makes you laugh.
David D’Arcy: The Norwegian title of this film is Kraftidioten? Does this say anything special to a Norwegian audience?
Hans Peter Moland: If you translate it literally, it means “the powerful idiot” or “the super idiot.” I was never completely comfortable with the title. It’s actually a Danish expression that came with our screenwriter, Kim Fupz Aakeson. I wanted to change the title to something in Norwegian, but I couldn’t find the right expression, so we stayed with that title. I like the English title better than the Norwegian title.
Q: In the film you see all sorts of references to the obvious things – Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, and all the snow movies in the Rockies. Were there any historical sources for your story? Did any of this actually happen in Norway? Was there an event like this?
Moland: No. I started toying around 15 years ago about what might happen to somebody who considered himself a civilized human being if a child died in this fashion. It was more of a mind experiment on how you might go about finding the culprit, and working your way up the hierarchy, and what the outcome might be. Obviously these criminals are not the kind of people who would volunteer the names of who ordered them to kill someone. So, it was about how you might extract that information, and how you would react, but not be found out. That was the idea.
Q: Stellan, had you ever played that kind of vengeful character before?
Skarsgard: Not that I can think of. I didn’t think of this so much as a revenge genre film. I thought my job was to play a normal decent man who breaks down – first he tries to kill himself, then he turns his anger toward those criminals.
Q: About suicide, the American conventional wisdom was that the suicide rate in the Nordic countries was high because social democracy was so comfortable and boring. People killed themselves because life was so good. It wasn’t enough of a struggle. In fact the suicide rate in Nordic countries is about the same for white Protestant men in the US.
Moland: I’m sure Trump would say that. What an educational system you have in this country
Q: Watch out. If he’s elected, we’re all going to move to Norway. Just to establish the realism of the film – not that you were going after realism — how much of a problem would cocaine be in a remote part of Norway like this?
Moland: Norway used to be really innocent about drugs until the Balkan Wars, which were financed by drugs, to a great degree, and a lot of the Balkan criminals were bringing heroin into Norway. The country at the time was not able to defend itself against that kind of sophisticated or organized crime.
It is a real problem. Oslo is the heroin capital of Europe actually. We’ve got a lot of problems with drug overdoses.
This is a very stylized film, and one of the ambitions of the film was not to be constrained by any single genre. It is a revenge tale, but it’s also a cautionary tale about revenge, because obviously the outcome is devastating to all the characters. And it’s a comedy, it’s a satire, and occasionally an emotional drama.
Q: There’s also a real visual power to the film. You have this white powder, cocaine, which is at the core of the plot, and you also have Nils driving through mountains of white powder in the winter landscape in the snowplow – determination and futility.
Moland: The remote and desolate white expanse is also the lack of civilization, which is imprinted on that landscape. The only part of civilization that has reached it is Nils’s track with the snowplow. It gives him a sense of purpose that he’s keeping this road open through the wilderness.
Q: I thought of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – ‘water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.”
Moland: When we were developing it, we thought about westerns, and how westerns are stylized and can transcend the limitations of the straight realism.
Q: Speaking of realism, you have the rival Balkan drug gang, led by Bruno Ganz, of all people, complaining about how the civilized Norwegians will obey laws to pick dog shit up off the street, and how you won’t get raped if you end up in prison there. They’re baffled. They can’t understand it.
Moland: The “Albanians,” in this film, are all great stars in Croatia and Serbia. I think they took great delight in being able to have a Balkan perspective in something that is considered to be a model society of Europe.
Q: And usually they are the ones who are stigmatized as being locked into the extremes of revenge and behavior driven by honor.
Moland: Always looking for echoes of The Battle in Kosovo in 1389, or any acts that are seen as insulting.
Q: Has the discussion of immigration risen to a level of intensity in Norway? How would you explain Norwegian attitudes toward the “Albanians” or toward other immigrants in Norway to an American audience? How different would that be?
Moland: There’s no animosity toward immigrants. Norway has traditionally been a homogeneous society. When we first had immigrants come in, it was almost like a curiosity. We like to think of ourselves as hospitable, but with thousands of Syrians traveling across Europe to other countries, Norwegians became concerned about the chance of losing their identity. It was an exaggerated fear of the unknown. There’s an ambivalence toward people who are in dire need of help.
Q: Let’s look at the character of the Count (Pal Sverre Hagen) for a second – he’s loathsome, despicable, and he collects contemporary art. He has an aesthetic sense, but it’s ridiculous, just like his wardrobe and his hair – he seems determined to be seen as an epicurean consumer. You may not have intended this, but looking at this guy will make you hate contemporary art.
Moland: I appreciate it that you noticed that. There’s a huge disparity between the way he sees himself, and what he actually is. Like most of the characters in this film, he doesn’t know himself very well.
Q: That’s an understatement. When the film opened in Norway, were there reactions that you didn’t expect?
Moland: Some liberals found it uncomfortable that they were laughing involuntarily at the violence and at the politically incorrect jokes. Also, a lot of women told me that they usually don’t like violent films, but that they truly enjoyed seeing people killed in this film.
Q: Stellan, have you ever been in a film with such a high body count?
Skarsgard: It’s the highest body count, by my own hand. It’s the most people that I’ve killed in a film, and I’ve killed quite a few.
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