Reviewed by Lauren Humphries-Brooks
Imagine the Coen Brothers making Taken in the snowy wilds of Norway, and you’ve got something like the brilliantly black Scandinavian comedy In Order of Disappearance. The film stars Stellan Skarsgård as Nils, a snowplow driver in a remote corner of Norway whose son is murdered (mistakenly) by crossing a drug cartel led by the Count (Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen, of Kon Tiki fame). Thrown into an agony of grief and subsequently estranged from his wife, Nils begins the systematic murder of everyone involved in his son’s death, leading him up the ladder towards the Count. The death toll is counted by intertitles bearing the name – or nickname – of the deceased, as Nils cuts his bloody swath through the killers. His pursuit of vengeance inadvertently triggers a gang war between the Norwegian cartel and a Serbian mob, inaugurating increasingly screwball turns emphasized by some dark Scandinavian humor.
While I compare this film to the work of the Coens, there’s no doubt that In Order of Disappearance is a very Scandinavian crime comedy (though we have to remember that Coens also come from a tradition with Nordic humor). The stark, snowy Norwegian landscape features prominently, creating a visual and philosophical undercurrent of barrenness and fatalism that runs through the more comedic moments. And there is a lot of humor here, but it’s of the dry variety, at times so deadpan that you might almost mistake it for sincerity. The Count grapples with family problems that include a bullied son and the perils of veganism, his hit men fall in love with each other, and the Serbians enjoy playing in the snow and philosophizing about the welfare state. There is a sense of playfulness about the film, even as it treats of deadly serious things.
Skarsgård plays a likable and unsmiling lead, taking on the role that Liam Neeson will almost definitely play when the film is remade. But even he has his humorous moments, giggling ridiculously with a man he’s about to murder. We first meet Nils receiving a Citizen of the Year award on the same night his son is murdered. He speaks about his responsibility as a snowplow driver, cutting out a section of the wilderness for humanity, a theme that will be echoed in his destruction of the Count’s cartel. Nils is also an outsider, a Swedish immigrant to Norway facing homegrown violence, a tacit criticism, perhaps, of the ongoing conflict even among the most peaceful of nations. It’s no mistake that he finally finds common cause with Papa (Bruno Ganz), the leader of the Serbian mob.
In Order of Disappearance is a taut, intelligent crime dramedy, the kind that you want to watch over again just to catch all the twists. Its humor is its saving point, however, avoiding making Nils’s revenge repetitive by undercutting it with humanizing humor. These are mobsters and murderers, but they’re also fathers, mothers, friends, and lovers, people with emotions and real lives who just happen to do horrible, bloody things. Through all its twists and turns, there is a palpable sense of humanity, of real men and women with equally violent and mundane lives. The body count rises and we never stop pulling for Nils to win in the end, but we also know there’s no winning. There’s just the snowplow driver cutting through the wilderness, knowing that the snow will only pile up again behind him. And that, in itself, is pretty damn funny.
Lauren Humphries-Brooks: A writer and editor with two Master’s degrees in Creative Writing (University of Edinburgh) and Cinema Studies (NYU). Currently freelances as copy and content editor for Cobblestone Press and previously worked as an ESOL Writing Instructor for Hamilton College. She maintains her own website and writes freelance for sites including We Got This Covered, The News Hub, and Man I Love Films. (Twitter handle @)