There's a fine line between an artist spinning out variations of core themes and merely treading water. No doubt some will find Aki Kaurismaki's deceptively slight, 77-minute "Lights in the Dusk" a textbook example of the latter, especially given the strenuously laudatory response that greeted his previous film, the Academy Award-nominated "The Man Without a Past." While there's not much value (outside of sheer contrarian pleasure) in poking holes in a fine movie four years after the fact, it's still worth noting that "The Man Without a Past" probably represents less a high water mark for Kaurismaki's filmmaking (see "Shadows in Paradise") than in the amount of time and money expended on raising his profile, and that this kind of maneuvering, while often valuable, doesn't always pay a filmmaker dividends when their next work rolls around.
"Lights in the Dusk" may not add anything particularly novel to the Kaurismaki formula, but for this viewer, easy familiarity bred content. The concluding chapter in his "Finland/Loser" trilogy (after "Drifting Clouds" and "The Man Without a Past"), "Dusk" follows lonely security guard Koistinen (relative Kaurismaki newcomer Janne Hyytiainen) as the already baleful drudgery of his daily existence takes a decidedly downbeat turn. Ridiculed and mocked by his co-workers and harboring dreams of opening his own security company, Koistinen's only positive interactions occur in his chats with the obviously smitten hot dog stand owner Aila (Maria Heiskanen), until one evening a mysterious platinum blonde sidles up to him in a cafe. Mirja's (Maria Jarvenhelmi) interest in our decidedly unfashionable hero is the kind of inexplicable plot twist that regularly portended at least intrigue, and usually disaster, for the protagonists of the classic noirs Kaurismaki's riffing off of. So its no surprise when their quick courtship (a trip to a rock concert is notably hilarious in its precarious balancing of the filmmaker's obvious love for the exuberance of old-fashioned rock 'n' roll with his trademark mannered deadpan) finds Koistinen playing the fall guy for a heist pulled off by Mirja's friends in the Russian mafia.
Yet another narrative that's fully the product of Kaurismaki's decidedly mixed feelings on his hometown, "Dusk" loses "The Man Without a Past"'s trappings of makeshift community (which formed no small part of its appeal) in favor of a more alienated view of the underground workings of a Helsinki wracked by its position straddling the line between Europe and Russia. There may be no European city that's been so carefully rendered ugly and generic as Kaurismaki's succession of glaring neons and street lamps, post-Communist housing blocks, shipyards, and slums - anyone curious about the energetic waterfront, colorful Art Nouveau structures, or recognizable Aaltos might do well just to buy a plane ticket. But Kaurismaki's singularity of purpose, style and milieu never feels suffocating; he's smart and cagey enough a filmmaker to test his limits to the right degree, and he always knows when to fall back on his strengths, namely comedy. I'd contrast "Lights in the Dusk" with kindred laconic funnyman Jim Jarmusch's "Broken Flowers." Where Jarmusch spent a good chunk of the last decade wandering further and further afield to great success and acclaim, his return after the mishap that was "Coffee and Cigarettes" felt nothing if not exhausted. Ever the good, conflicted, and terribly wry Finn, Kaurismaki's brief moment in the sun has left him unchanged - "Lights in the Dusk" is nothing more nor less than exactly the kind film he's always made. On a handful of occasions throughout his career he's plumbed this material better than almost anyone, and even if "Dusk" may not come close to scaling those heights, it's easy enjoyment while we wait for the next attempt.
Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and currently works for Magnolia Pictures.