Snow falls on the just and unjust alike in Hans Petter Moland’s In Order of Disappearance. The white stuff has always been a great symbol of the nature’s indifference to man – a blanket that erases everything under static, frozen purity. To battle against snow is like ordering the oncoming tide to retreat.
In Order of Disappearance finds its Canute in Nils Dickman (Stellan Skarsgård). He lives in a remote, snowblasted town in the backwaters of Norway, devoting his life to the vital task of clearing the roads of snow. His tool for this is a gigantic industrial plough, a fearsome mechanical beast with tyres wreathed in chains and an armored wedge bolted to the front. Nils is hugely respected, we meet him just as he receives ‘The Citizen of Year Award,’ and local politicians are trying to convince him to stand as a political representative. Life is good. Chilly, but good.
Then gangsters murder Nils’ son, prompting this mild-mannered, taciturn man to go on a roaring rampage of revenge, working his way up the crime food chain towards his final target, crime boss Greven (Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen). Complicating matters is that the gangsters have no idea who is dismantling their gang, jumping to the conclusion that it must be rival Serbian gangsters, who are led by the enigmatic Papa (Bruno Ganz). And so all the characters become knotted into a rapidly escalating cycle of tit-for-tat violence, a bloody snowball that bulges with body after body as it rumbles faster and faster onwards.
As the bodycount climbs ever higher (each death illustrated with a title card giving the gangster’s nickname, birth name and religious denomination), the film slowly transitions from revenge thriller into a dark comedy that’ll deeply tickle any Coen Brothers fans. As we watch small town cops puzzle over the arrival of violence into their peaceful town, the obvious point of comparison is Fargo. With crimson blood spatters on pristine snow, it’s the closest aesthetic equivalent, especially when in beautifully framed shots it appears that scenes take place in a white void, with the black-clad actors trapped in featureless limbo.
For my money, the closest thematic equivalent are the films of Martin and John McDonagh, especially In Bruges. Both films are driven by the very dark gag of gangsters being inherently shortsighted, bumbling and moronic – yet ready to deliver gory retribution without a moment’s thought. There’s a conscious effort here to strip organized crime of its elegance, making clowns of stone-faced hardmen in sharp suits.
Moland constructs a beautiful sequence when the Serbian gangsters travel to the small town to track down the killers. They end up staying in a ski lodge and – though their mission is murder – they become distracted by the winter sports, desperate to try out a spot of paraskiing. Even Bruno Ganz’s mob boss lightens up, impressed by the young speed skiers whistling down the slopes past him. It’s difficult to take these men seriously as a threat when they’re giggling and throwing snowballs at each other.
The Norwegian gangsters are similarly incompetent, though in a peculiarly polite Scandinavian sort of way. Their coke-dealing ring is what IKEA might be like if they got into narcotics; tasteful, well-organized and put together with polite attention to detail. Their boss, Greven, is the funniest thing here, a yuppie, vegan gangster with an ultra-precise sense of style. The scenes that take place in his house are stuffed with amazing production design; bucket chairs in the shape of Greek faces, achingly tasteful objets d’art and an enormous glass desk (upon which sit tiny models of furniture).
Carving an inexorable path through this is Skarsgård’s Dickman (and yes, that name is intentionally funny). From the moment his son dies he’s as frozen as the snow he shovels, functioning primarily as a silent vessel of retribution rather than as anyone we can really relate to. Though Skarsgård’s introverted performance prevents us fully empathizing with Dickman, it’s difficult not to find the image of a middle-aged man stomping disconsolately around in high-vis shorts somehow loveable. As his gigantic plough transforms into a tool of revenge he turns into an ersatz slasher villain – the massive grill of the plough ominous like the truck from Spielberg’s Duel.
The only fly in the ointment is the film’s rather dismissive treatment of women, as it is entirely focused on masculinity; Dickman’s wife and Greven’s ex-partner (and mother of his child) are both summarily dismissed from the narrative as soon as they’ve served their purpose. Slightly troubling is a late joke where the boss gangster, tangled up in confusion and frustration at not being able to understand what’s going on, lays her out with one punch. The shock and suddenness got one of the bigger laughs in the film, but it’s a deeply troubling image. The best light I can throw on this concentration of masculinity is that Moland is satirizing male power fantasies; explaining that you can’t solve your problems with vicious beatings, murder and beheadings.
Overall, In Order Of Disappearance is an excellent little crime flick, with Stellan Skarsgård being the obvious highlight here, taking a remorseless killer and gently mixing in subtle touches that quietly reveal the toll all this violence is taking on him – the endpoint being a weird moral equivalence with Bruno Ganz’ wonderfully tired old Serbian gangster.
In Order Of Disappearance is a wonderful slice of crime cinema; grimly hilarious, consistently beautiful and marvellously performed.