In the Norwegian black comedy "A Somewhat Gentle Man," Stellan Skarsgård bares everything and yet shows so little. With a distinctively muted demeanor, Skarsgård plays a semi-reformed hit man attempting to reassemble his life after spending several years behind bars. Mostly, he appears at the mercy of everyone around him: His ex-wife, his landlady, his current and former bosses. Cold-blooded killers rarely look this pathetic, which testifies to the impressive balance of Skarsgård's amusingly low-key performance.
(Full disclosure: I was on the jury at Austin's Fantastic Fest last year, where we bestowed Skarsgård with an acting award. At this raucous genre-loving affair, the movie received a far different reception from its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival and many admittedly juvenile gags were made about the 51-year-old actor's willingness to display his junk onscreen. However, it's not Skarsgård's fleeting nudity that defines his role in "A Somewhat Gentle Man," but rather the air of disinterest that emanates from everything he does. He takes the opportunity to go deadpan and runs with it.)
As Ulrik, a professional killer whose family life is in shambles, Skarsgård hardly says a word and still makes his character imminently likable. Wandering his old stomping grounds after his release, he lets the people around him do the talking. Former employers show up and try to hire him to kill again. He drops by his estranged son's home and finds himself unwelcome. He lazily screws his ex-wife in the kitchen of her diner, then indulges the horny advances of his elderly landlord. Eventually, he settles into a routine gig as a mechanic, where his boss routinely unleashes lengthy monologues rife with inscrutable life advice. Discovering a battered woman among his co-workers, he sets out to save her from her abusive husband. Skarsgård's frozen expression allows an ironic sense of humor to creep into these scenes, even though his character's sadness appears unsalvageable.
Directed by frequent Skarsgård collaborator Hans Petter Moland ("Zero Kelvin"), "A Somewhat Gentle Man" eventually takes on the shape of an unlikely family drama: Ulrik persists in his attempts to win back his son's affections and develop a closeness with his pregnant daughter-in-law, even though the son refuses to tell her Ulrik's true identity and instead identifies him as an uncle. Moland neatly blends these alternately downbeat and heartwarming moments with comic eruptions of violence, resulting in an intriguing genre hybrid that suggests a less-upbeat "Grosse Point Blank."
However, Moland's constant restraint means that Ulrik's plight lacks much energy and the series of entertaining incidents that define his life rarely gain enough momentum to give the movie lasting appeal. In its quiet way, however, "A Somewhat Gentle Man" works as a tale of hesitant redemption. By the end, Ulrik has become a somewhat reformed man, but the final shot — a long take in which Ulrik and a friend gaze into the distance, looking at nothing in particular — implies that his future is eternally uncertain.
criticWIRE grade: B+