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Berlin Review: Stellan Skarsgaard Is a Killing Machine In Enjoyable Dark Comedy ‘In Order Of Disappearance’

Berlin Review: Stellan Skarsgaard Is a Killing Machine In Enjoyable Dark Comedy 'In Order Of Disappearance'

Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland’s previous collaboration with Stellan Skarsgard, “A Somewhat Gentle Man,” was an enjoyable black comedy involving the offbeat exploits of a newly released criminal. For his followup, “In Order of Disappearance,” Moland flips the equation, casting Skarsgard as a grief-stricken father hot on the trail of the criminals responsible for murdering his son. But like the duo’s previous team-up, the particularities of the circumstance matter less than the irreverent dark humor under which circumstances play out.

In its opening minutes, “In Order of Disappearances” establishes a rhythm that continues for its duration: a pair of cold-blooded killers leave the body of a young man at the airport, the image of his corpse followed by an intertitle featuring his name. Then we meet Nils (Skarsgard), the tractor-driving father of the deceased, who’s told at the morgue that his son died of an overdose. Unconvinced — and petrified by the cold response of the local police — he launches on a warpath that keeps building to chaotic extremes, while the morbid finality of his destructive journey strikes an amusing juxtaposition with the befuddled reactions of his numerous victims — mostly thugs who would never expect a middle-aged, working class man to suddenly take them down. Skarsgard’s deadpan expression underscores the impression that Nils can’t entirely believe it himself. The contrast between his blunt maneuverings and quiet demeanor are the movie’s chief appeal. Aided by the expansive snowy landscape, and the irony of Nils moving slowly through its icy roads in his creaky plow, “In Order of Disappearance” strikes a distinctly Scandinavian tone.

With time, Nils’ revenge scheme catches the attention of Ole (Pal Sverre Hagen), the psychotic crime boss responsible for the underground antics that led to the death of Nils’ son, at which point several events overlap at once: Nils tracks down his older brother, a retired gangster known as Wingman, with the intent of using his old connections to hire a hit man, who promptly sells them out. Meanwhile, Ole’s own murderous antics fuel another bereaved father with more dangerous tendencies, the leader of a warring Serbian crime syndicate played with scowling resolve by the great Bruno Ganz. Gradually, through its mini-chapters of blunt lethal encounters, “In Order of Disappearance” charts a map toward the intersection of these various characters with an increasingly enjoyable pace. As each death receives its punctuation with another title card — as well as several instances that find Nils disposing bodies — the repetition becomes a morbid joke unto itself.

Despite the cartoonish nature of the premise, the movie gradually establishes Nils’ underlying emotion lurking beneath his Terminator-like resolve. More than just a gimmick, “In Order of Disappearance” gives Skarsgaard room to elaborate on his character’s off-kilter drive once Nils kidnaps his prime target’s young child and forms an unlikely bond with the boy. It’s a clever means of genre deconstruction — from its bleak, violent opening, the story gradually warms up.

Even so, as it careens toward a climactic shootout, the conflict suffers from the feeling of a routine, echoing the mold of minor Tarantino homage found in countless crime dramedies of the past 20 years. There’s no getting around some of its derivative qualities, but Kim Fupz Aakeson’s screenplay does a serviceable job of showing the criminals’ human qualities in their casual asides (“There’s no warm country without welfare,” whines one thug to another while they await their next target). Mafia boss Ole is a particularly funny creation, as his domestic squabbles with his ex-wife are always at odds with his attempts at conveying a menacing demeanor (“I’m a vegan, for fuck’s sake!” he spouts when his wife accuses him of feeding their son bad food).

If the broad caricatures hold back the movie’s capacity for generating empathy for its villains, they nevertheless allow the scenario to evade wallowing in the same grief haunting Nils throughout. Instead, with its continuing pileup of characters memorialized by fleeting credits, “In Order of Disappearance” cleverly magnifies the way each man is trapped in the mazes of his own problems — all of which magically evaporate with the immediacy of their sudden deaths. The obsession over life’s worst tragedies is the movie’s greatest punchline of all.

Criticwire Grade: B+

HOW WILL IT PLAY? A crowdpleaser in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival, “In Order of Disappearance” is bound to find a home with a U.S. distributor able to play up the appeal of its genre ingredients and Skarsgaard’s fame. Though box office prospects are relatively limited, it should enjoy widespread festival play and strong returns in ancillary markets.

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