Chief inspector Kurt Wallander (Krister Henriksson) has just turned 62, and would be quite content to spend the rest of his days on the deck of his new home in the seaside town of Ystad, Sweden listening to the water lap up on the shore, with this faithful dog Jussi by his side. At an age when retirement seems like it’s just around the corner, Wallander is cut from the cloth of cops whose job isn’t just a calling but a reflex, as natural as breathing. And working in the police department of a town of about 20,000 it doesn’t seems like the kind of place where too much will change before he inevitably has to hang up his badge. He couldn’t be more wrong.
“Wallander: The Revenge” begins with a literal bang, as a carefully planned and timed explosion at the power station in Ystad plunges the town into darkness, providing the perfect cover for murder. And indeed, a town councilor under police protection is left vulnerable and is found the next morning with his bullet riddled body lying on the bedroom floor. Complicating matters, the councilor was under intense scrutiny for bringing a controversial art exhibit about Muhammad to a municipal building when no other art gallery would take it on, leading to threats and protests. Was the explosion the cover for the murder, or are the two events unrelated? Where can the investigation even start? The scope and scale of the crime is something Wallander and his team haven’t quite seen before, and the fear that this could be a terrorist action has everyone on edge.
More ideas are packed into the 90-minute running time of this procedural than most feature films, and it’s made a bit more remarkable considering “Wallander: The Revenge” is actually a standalone episode from season two of the popular Swedish television series (that has also been made into an English version with Kenneth Branagh in the lead). ‘The Revenge’ doesn’t require you to know any character histories, putting the viewer right into the mix of the mystery, but it’s the themes that make it a compelling view. ‘The Revenge’ brings a lot of hot-button issues to the fore: religious protection vs. freedom of expression, racism, profiling and more, but it knows enough not to try and make any definitive statement. These issues tend to churn and change from day to day in real life and in ‘The Revenge’ we see how emotions ripple from inside the police to the citizens themselves; heightening as the case gets more complicated, the destruction increases and the bodies stack up, and ebbing when the trickier truth is unveiled.
But for all the story smarts on display, ‘The Revenge’ is still beholden to some tired cliches. A woman from the prosecutor’s office plants herself in the police department, cramping Wallander’s style and demanding to kept abreast of the updates in the cases (being treated as seperate incidents until a link can be found). She’s roughly around the same age as Wallander, divorced, attractive….you can probably guess where that goes. And if that isn’t enough, Wallander is also assigned two trainees, a young man and woman, whose timing on their new job couldn’t be worse. For all of Wallander’s liberal views (he insists that the controversial exhibit stay up during the investigation as a matter of principle), a woman working in the department is something he can’t get his head around. Of course, the young man turns out be a tech wiz and he’s soon cracking computers for clues, but as for the woman, she’ll have to earn Wallander’s respect before he lets her into his world (didn’t we see all this in “The Enforcer” three decades ago?).
However, the combination of strong performances and some tight direction by Charlotte Brandstrom make those quibbles easy to overlook. Even though Wallander moves with all the energy of a week-old basket of laundry, Henriksson’s sunken eyes and worn face make him nontheless magnetic, allowing the audience to know this is a man who has pretty much seen it all, and trust that his old-school methods will solve the new-school crime. And even facing the possible threat of terrorism in his town and all the chaos it brings with it, Wallander’s strength comes form his unwavering resolve and his determination not to crack under the strain. Brandstrom allows the audience to feel that tension with two great setpieces, opening the film with a great murder sequence in the dark that sets the story in motion, and another in broad daylight as Wallander tries to defuse a charged situation both literally and figuratively. And between it, she keeps the many moving parts moving smoothly, with the story kept crystal clear as the various threads unspool.
Kudos have to be given to Music Box Films for this unique idea, placing the first episode of the “Wallander” series in limited release in theaters (you can watch all of season two on VOD starting today). And while ‘The Revenge’ is a compact and solid thriller, it doesn’t necessarily need to be seen on the big screen. But it does serve as a great introduction to a series that is two years dead (season 2 ran in 2010), providing a very good reason for North American audiences who like smart, sharp crime dramas to give it a spin — we know we’re definitely going to be tracking down the full two seasons as soon as we can. [B]