A Somewhat Gentle Man Dir. Hans Petter Moland

[Strand Releasing; 2010]

Styles: crime, Scandinavian identity studies?
Others: You, the Living; About Schmidt

Cold climates seem to attract redemption stories (Crime & Punishment, The Edge). In A Somewhat Gentle Man, director Hans Petter Moland uses the endless quiet and unmarred snow of suburban Norway as vessels for catharsis and reflection. Ulrik (Stellan Skarsgård) has just been released after 12 years in prison. Laconic and generally confused, he has to navigate around a criminal past while trying to find his way to a new life based on family and hard work. Ulrik quickly falls in with his old employer, Jensen (Bjørn Floberg), a small-time mobster who repeats to Ulrik that accounts must be settled — the man who sent Ulrik to prison must be killed. Jensen supported Ulrik’s family while he was away, and upon his release sets him up with a room, a job, and a gun. That Ulrik has outgrown crime in the intervening 12 years and now owns a sense of mercy is beyond Jensen’s comprehension. It becomes clear early on that somehow escaping his fealty to Jensen will be among the more difficult of Ulrik’s priorities.

Before pigeonholing A Somewhat Gentle Man as your typical crime movie, humor too has a home in the cold. Moland steers the film away from Ulrik’s criminal duties and towards his newfound domestic routine. Ulrik’s landlady, a homely, disagreeable divorcée, quickly finds herself attracted to her new tenant, the first pretense for a comically mechanical sex scene in a film full of homely coupling. Ulrik semi-reluctantly services several lonely women who read his obedience as affection. The bizarre love triangle that eventually forms seems doomed to explode; when it does, it’s an indictment of Ulrik’s ambivalence and obsequiousness, and an important moment on his path to becoming the film’s title character. That Moland is able to make this, too, a moment of quiet hilarity testifies to his skill at blending absurd humor with quotidian drama.

Skarsgård’s expressiveness is hard to overpraise; Ulrik barely speaks in the film’s first act, and bodily he seems restricted to Frankenstein lurches and awkward leans throughout. Peripheral figures are always babbling at Ulrik; his new boss, a mechanic, is chatty and remonstrative, and Ulrik’s winces and shrugs indicate how little he understands and how eager he is to be well, to do good. When someone finally asks Ulrik what his crime is — he shot someone; it used to be kind of his thing — he admits it almost affably; he is never discursive or elusive. By having Ulrik’s responses limited to awkwardness and nonchalant confusion for the film’s early sections, Moland is able to make Ulrik’s first glimmer of happiness that much more satisfying. During a visit to her small diner, Ulrik’s ex-wife mentions how successful their son has become — an engineer, with a baby on the way — and watching him smile and mumble a satisfied “okay” reveals just how much hope he has and the modest limits he sees for his own happiness.

Moland leans on several refrains throughout the film — Jensen’s insistence that accounts be settled, Ulrik’s repeated attempts to smoke indoors, everyone’s belief that Ulrik has been released a few days early — and the mileage for each varies. After the first couple instances, watching Ulrik’s landlady slip off her underwear loses its humor and, perhaps intentionally, becomes another indicator of a sad duty he has to fulfill. Ulrik’s attempts to build a relationship with his son are also sad to watch — his son’s wife has been told Ulrik is dead — and Ulrik’s near-stalking of his son’s family is crushing if understandable. However, this is what makes A Somewhat Gentle Man impressive; no moment is encountered without Ulrik’s perspective, and you find yourself rooting for a man who is, frankly, something of a bastard. Every character and event is peripheral to Ulrik’s growth, his journey. There’s no dearth of action in the film — there’s fighting, gunplay, a backseat childbirth — but all of it exists only to cultivate his journey towards atonement. Moland’s subtlety as director allows his hero’s quiet, quirky struggle to become both empowering and chastening; the steps towards Ulrik’s redemption begin with a wry understanding of his own limitations, which seems like as good a lesson as any.

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