Saturday, March 26, 2011
Stellan Skarsgård first came to my attention in "Breaking the Waves" back in 1996 but he had been acting for more than two decades. His latest film "A Somewhat Gentle Man" (opened March 25 at Landmark's Ken Cinema) once again displays his fine craft but in a weaker film.
"A Somewhat Gentle Man" opens with Ulrik (Stellan Skarsgård) being released from prison after a 12-year stint not for being a professional killer but rather for murdering his wife's lover. Ulrik is a hit man but he's not exactly passionate about his craft. He appears to have been good at his work but let's just say his heart's not in it. But he is extremely obedient, an attractive quality to his mob boss Rune Jensen (Bjørn Floberg). Upon his release from prison, Jensen sets Ulrik up in a small apartment with a crotchety battleaxe of a landlady (Jorunn Kjellsby) who cooks him dull meals and offers even duller sex (these sex scenes are some of the funniest scenes in the film). Jensen urges his employee to get revenge on the guy that ratted him out. Only thing is Ulrik is in no way eager to perform the deed. So that means Ulrik has a lot of free time on his hands. Jensen sets him up with a job in a garage where he's eyed suspiciously by the garage's secretary (Jannike Kruse). Ulrik also has an estranged wife, grown son, and an odd assortment of criminals to contend with as he bids his time in the little apartment that has become his new prison cell.
Director Hans Petter Moland and screenwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson want "A Somewhat Gentle Man" to be a dry black comedy that serves up a somewhat gentle spin on the stereotype of the hardened and ruthless hit man. But it's a spin on a stereotype that has now become its own cliché. We have seen such riffs on hit men previously in "The Professional," "The Matador," and "In Bruges." But those films managed to find a way to make the spin work well. "A Somewhat Gentle Man" is an intermittent success with a stellar performance by Skarsgård.
Tonally, this Norwegian film reminded me of the Danish "Terribly Happy," which also dealt with some odd sexual relationships, an odd mix of criminal types, and some darkly humorous goings on. But "Terribly Happy" had a more interesting and dynamic mix of characters. Moland tries a bit too hard to be quirky and to make Ulrik endearing. He also takes too much of his cue from the rather passive Ulrik who tends to let things happen to him rather than to be an active participant. The film picks up when Ulrik finally makes a decision of his own and the irony is that you could call it a decision not to act because he chooses not to seek revenge, a decision that pisses off his boss who sees it as a sign of weakness.
Skarsgård's Ulrik is a likable lug with a dog-like sense of obedience and loyalty. His personality seems completely contrary to the nature of his work because he seems to take no pleasure in the violence he's hired to commit. In fact he seems like he would be perfectly happy to be a couch potato sitting in his room and watching TV. It even seem incongruous that he would have killed his wife's lover because that sounds like an act of passion and Ulrik just doesn't come across as the passionate type. Skarsgård makes us care about Ulrik and it's his performance that invests us in the film by giving it some emotional weight.
"A Somewhat Gentle Man" (unrated and in Norwegian with English subtitles) feels familiar in its quirkiness and never really develops an original voice of its own. But it's always a pleasure to see Skarsgård.
Companion viewing: "Terribly Happy," "Breaking the Waves," "In Bruges"