I’ve just shared a Museum of Modern Art post of a video that was an introduction to the Western genre. Not that I need much of an introduction, It’s a massive love of my life. What I was fascinated with was the question that the narrator/curator posed towards the end of the 13 minute video. Is the Western dead? Well looking at my first review of the year and films I have lined up to watch at home, I can safely say that it’s very much alive. Last night I was caught off-guard with Norwegian film – In Order of Disappearance/Kraftidioten (2014) that’s a million miles away on the surface of being a Western. Then I only have to think about films such as A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) which flipped the genres gender conventions to create something refreshing. Released the same year In Order of Disappearance continues that reinvention of the genre. Moving the tropes and placing them in the snow of Norway.
We begin with a middle-aged couple, Nils Dickman (Stellan Skarsgård) is dressing for an award ceremony in his honor – citizen of the year. All for doing what – clearing the roads with his impressive snow-plow. Making our efforts in the UK to survive even just a week of snow look pathetic. A landscape that he has tamed, an immigrant who has made the land his own, as has accepted him as one of their own. So far it’s nothing out of the ordinary, a society has accepted a stranger. It’s the brutal scenes later that night, two younger men are grabbed at an airport, result in one being found dead the next morning. On learning that the dead man Ingvar (Aron Eskeland) is the son of Nils and his wife, being told that he died of an overdose. Something that the father doesn’t believe. Similar to a young man being found dead after a gunfight in the West, labelled a gunfighter after never picking up a gun in his life. A verdict that Nils won’t accept lying down, unlike his wife who wants to mourn and move on.
The screen cuts to an untranslated title card with a cross and a name, I learn that this is form the film is going to take, it takes a few times to see these title cards. Nils accidentally learns the truth about his son’s death he’s given a new purpose in life – to avenge his son. He’s the Norwegian Paul Kersey from Death Wish (1974) with a more focused reason for getting his gun out to take out the men behind his son’s death. It’s hard to believe that this man, whose only a few more years from retirement is full of vengeful energy that at times can be darkly comedic. Never underestimate the power if grief when it’s channeled through anger that sees a life being avenged far beyond the violence that took the first life.
The title cards allows the film to be broken up into chapters, one murder per chapter allows us to see a staggered progression. Nils is making his way through a mafia group lead by an emotionally driven Greven – Ole Forsby (Pål Sverre Hagen) a man-child who we learn has taken over the family drug business, having been spoiled as a child. A combination of his position and upbringing create a monster who we wait to lash out. All this is easily translatable to the West, the man with all the power, controlling a town, the local economy in his pockets, surrounded by men who are both dangerous, stupid and not to be trusted.
Unbeknownst to the mafia who believe this is a war between rival gangs, not a single man on a deadly mission to exact justice for his son, things become more complicated. With the arrival of the a Serbian on a drug run he gets caught up actually starting a war. It’s a level of violence that Nils was not prepared for. He’d already tried to get to Ole with no success after his assassin tried to manipulate the situation for himself. It’s easy to make the comparison again to the West, a lone man tries to avenge his son, knowing he’s getting closer, killing Native Americans or a gang in town, working from afar, an unknown can work more effectively. However the unconsidered variable could bring rival gangs or nations into what potentially could be a war.
Nils finally strikes where he can really hurt Ole, by kidnapping his son, unaware of the complexity of his situation he’s not just invited Ole and his men, but the Serbians lead by Papa (Bruno Ganz) which is a clever piece of casting, the old guard meeting the new and less experience, no less dangerous. You really have to be paying attention to the deaths and the relationship between the Ole’s men, how this ultimately affects the final outcome. It’s a quick battle before the arms are finally lowered, enough blood has been shared, leaving the survivors tired and wanting to just get on with the rest of their lives in peace.
In order of Disappearance does what it says on the tin, an orderly death count that builds up the tension between three different groups in a landscape that could easily kill anyone of them. Much like the Western it relies on the independent man to stand up for himself, take law into his own hands to see that justice’s done. However as with life, its more complicated than that. The first few deaths are treated more lightly, as they mount up we see less of them or they become more brutal, but the results are always felt. The release of tension at the end is well earned in the freezing landscape allowing you to breathe again. To say the Western is dead is giving up too easily, look hard and read between lines of films released today and you won’t have far to go.
Another foreign film that I have been aware off but wasn’t in a rush to watch, waiting for a TV airing instead, which surprisingly paid off. I remember hearing good things about A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), a Iranian horror, with a rare female focus which is honestly very refreshing. You could easily say this is a feminist horror. With a female protagonist whose the titular girl who we follow. Beginning of a false footing with a quietly macho guy Arash (Arash Marandi) who we see loitering around a fence, before climbing over to rescue a cat, his cat. The opposite to what Marlon Brando would do (not rescue a cat), more likely o kick in the fence, venting his pent-up anger. Arash is not your typical male hero, if anything he’s the opposite of that in Bad City and fictional Iranian ghost town where the film’s based.
We see that Arash’s walked all over by his father (Marshall Manesh) drug dealer/Pimp Saeed (Dominic Rains) coming for more money that his heroin addicted father owes. His son is doing his best to look after him, who has clearly turned to drugs in the wake of his wife’s death. It’s unusual to see the son living at home and looking after his father on the screen. Of course this a more contemporary situation that Hollywood would never depict, instead it would be the daughter, looking after her father. It reminded me of Westerns, the unmarried daughter staying at home with her elderly father – sometimes blind or very ill and/cranky. This is the way I read the film after some time. A thread that I will pick up on later.
We’ve not even seen the titular girl, or so I thought we had when Saeed meets the first woman, Atti (Mozhan Marnò) in the film, who turns out to be one of his prostitutes who just wants her cut before we finally see the girl (Sheila Vand), dressed in a Hijab, not unusual in itself, but the lone figure in the dark scaring plays upon our inbuilt fears of the Islam and turning it on itself. The fear of the unknown figure within its environment inciting fear to other Iranians. At this point we are held at a distance, unsure of what real danger she poses. Interrupted at a forced sex act, fear is all the figure conveys at this stage.
Following the girl home to her basement flat, seeing her next as just a normal girl, whose shy and reclusive yet beautifully innocent features, how could this be the same girl under the hijab? We have an outsider who enjoys indie music on vinyl and seems to enjoy her own time. It’s the next few scenes that unveil her true identity and power as she lures Saeed to his demise at the hands of a female vampire. This I really didn’t see coming. I took the title too literally here which if anything has surprised me The lone stranger who walks the streets is the one you least suspect, a young woman, a vampire that to some extent is a lone gunfighter prowling the streets at night.
It’s a clever premise, playing on our fears of Islamic extremism and building on that in one of the countries whose dominant religion is Islam. Writing this review after such a horrific week, I feel this film is more relevant. We need to remember the power of fear and what it can do those who it’s inflicted upon. This fear has been confronted to an extent in A Girl Walks Home… instead if fearing the hijab for no reason other than that of extremism, we are actually given something to fear, the supernatural, a being who has take human form, nothing to do with Islam, merely the form of the vampire takes.
I’m reminded of Bone Tomahawk (2015) which played on similar fears, using the Native American and really going far out and giving the characters something to really fear and the audience too. Which leads me nicely back to the Western comparison which started with the role reversal placing Arash in the classic female role that falls for the stranger, the gunfighter, who ultimately tames him and they ride off into the sunset, or leaves her with her father. He falls for the strange girl, whose startled by the emotion that he brings out in her, she like any gunfighter is not used to such attention and the thoughts and feelings that they experience. Fighting against her natural urges and actions, doing what a vampire does best. Placing all this action in Iran is even braver.
A female lead, who plays on the fears of Islamic extremism in the guise of a horror. Does that make a female lead more acceptable, or get under the radar of censorship? Either way it’s playing against type completely for not just the horror genre but for cinema as a whole. Placing a woman in the protagonist role, the bad guy who has to be either killed or tamed. I couldn’t see a way to her demise happening. Could Arash have seen beyond her perceived innocence to see the truth? That’s the question we are left with, after all the violence she has caused, for good or bad she has done her bit to clean up Bad City the only way she knows how. As a gunfighter can only use his guns – using violence to bring peace to the town/city they are in.
In terms of horror it’s maybe not as scary as you hope, the ideas it explores and subvert make up for the lack of horror. When we do get it, it’s all about the build up, wondering how she will bite. Its the final attack that leaves you in awe as she rescues the damsel in distress. The moments which are slowed down create a sense of real awe and spectacle heightened by the black and white cinematography, be them horror or not. For me the real strength of the film is gender swapping of roles a Western in the guise of a horror, which for me is an added bonus. Ultimately it’s a refreshing film that takes our fears, placing them in a completely foreign country.