Dir. Baltasar Kormakur. Ice-Ger. 2007. 93mins.
It starts with the death of a little girl and it ends in a cemetery. In between these grim bookends, Jar City, Baltasar Kormakur's remarkable new whodunit, forges pitilessly ahead, through a maze of facts systematically unearthed one after the other, to reveal not only the culprit of a seemingly pointless crime, but also the suffocating pressure of an in-breeding nation suffering from genetic complications.
To all intents, Jar City looks just like any other thriller, in which the police tries to find out who killed a sleazy old man with a shady past. Though it never deviates from this avowed purpose, the prevailing heavy mood established by the opening sequence already announces something terribly wrong going on between parents and children, which cannot always be blamed on genes.
Deeply ingrained in Icelandic soil, which comes up as a constant reminder all through the picture, richly textured with everything from a crime story to heart-breaking personal tragedies and past sins that refuse to stay buried, this is possibly Kormakur's best effort to date, strongly confirming his position as one of Iceland's leading filmmakers.
Despite impressive performances and great technical credits, the film has mysteriously managed to stay out of international festivals for the first nine months of its existence (it enjoyed a strong theatrical release in Iceland late last year). It now however looks more than ready for solid play beyond home, not only at film events but also, if Trust Films Sales treats it right, in a wide arthouse release.
Working from a best selling novel by Arlandur Indridasson, Kormakur's script thrusts forward in two separate directions and timespans which finally converge into one. The first concerns the death of a little girl from a genetic brain defect, and her father's obsession to discover the roots of the disease. The second, given a larger exposure, focuses on the investigation into the murder of an old pervert, Holberg, found dead in a cellar infected by unbearable stench.
The bereaved father, Orm (Atli Rafn Sigurdarson) breaks into the data bank holding the genetic information for all the Icelandic population, to find similarities between his daughter's case and others that might have happened before, then apply his findings to his own personal history.
Meanwhile Erlendur (Ingvar Sigurdsson), a world-weary police inspector, and his assistants, try to collect information that would explain why anyone would bother to kill the derelict Holberg. While digging into his past they uncover rape cases that have never been brought to justice, a trio of rednecks who terrorised a small town and a corrupt policeman covering it all up.
Erlendur also has to cope at the same time with his daughter, Eva (Agusta Eva Erlendsdottir), a rebellious drug addict looking for money to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.
Once it all comes together, and it does, Jar City packs quite a wallop. Kormakur's sombre mood is prevalent throughout, moving from moments of infinite sadness (the little girl's death) to gruesome realism (the rat infested subterranean den under Holberg's floor).
He certainly has a point when he protests against the scandalous monopoly held by one private company which holds all the genetic records of all Icelanders, which can then be used for both commendable and nefarious purposes.
Yet despite his evident anger, he refuses to take sides and invites the audience instead to reach its own conclusions.
Then there is Kormakur's fiendish sense of humour. It may find best display in his depiction of food, like the police pathologist munching his lunch while dealing with the more scabrous causes of death of the cadavers on his table; or the inspector delightedly dissecting the head of a sheep he has bought for dinner.
But it can also refer to the embarrassment of Erlendur's assistant (Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson) who has to go from one sweet old lady to another and enquire whether they had been raped in their youth; or the dismay of the same assistant when the burly criminal he chases through the marshes, stops, turns around and instead of being the prey, is about to turn into the hunter.
The perfectly controlled performance by Sigurdsson in the lead is solidly seconded by a cast that never falls behind. Elisabet Ronaldsdottir's cutting keeps the pace alert at all times, while Bergsteinn Bjorglufsson's camera alternates between forbidding dusky images and 16 mm footage underlining the rough edges.
Frequent musical interventions from the mournful choir in the background may be a bit too insistent at times, but they certainly contribute to the dense atmosphere of the entire picture.
Trust Film Sales
Baltasar Kormakur, based on novel by Arnaldur Indridason
Agusta Eva Erlendsdottir
Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson
Atli Rafn Sigurdason