By Don Simpson | January 16, 2011
Director: Hans Petter Moland
Writer(s): Kim Fupz Aakeson (screenplay),
Starring: Stellan Skarsgård, Bjørn Floberg, Jorunn Kjellsby, Gard B. Eidsvold
The world can change fairly drastically in any twelve year period of time. Fashion trends come and go, new technologies are introduced while old ones become antiquated…well, you get the picture. Considering all of these changes on the grand scale, is it not a reasonable argument that people can change as well? Of course, the U.S. prison system does not agree with that logic, but several European countries — including Norway, where director Hans Petter Moland’s A Somewhat Gentle Man is set — do abide by the philosophy that people, even cold-blooded murderers, can change. Norway’s prison system focuses their efforts on rehabilitation and their prison sentences are drastically more abbreviated than those in the U.S., and though many legitimate and respectable studies have concluded that the prison systems of countries such as Norway and Sweden appear to be more effective in reducing recidivism — and light years more humane — than the U.S., the correctional philosophy of the U.S. prison system still exists somewhere in the Dark Ages. But, alas, I digress…
At the onset of A Somewhat Gentle Man, Ulrik (Stellan Skarsgård) is released from a Norwegian prison after serving a 12-year sentence for murder. Ulrik emerges from the prison gates with an outdated hairstyle to a embark upon a new life; he is given a blank slate (as he gazes across a flat and barren snow covered field) and told by the prison guard to never look back.
No one has come to pick up Ulrik from prison — an oft repeated gag is that no one remembers the correct date of Ulrik’s release — so he must find his own way…but to where? Ulrik already knows that his family will not welcome him back with open arms — his bitter ex-wife (Kjersti Holman) has tried to forget him and move on, while his son (Jan Gunnar Røise) has deemed him dead — so he heads directly to the diner where Rune (Bjørn Floberg), Ulrik’s previous boss, holds court with his flunky, Rolf (Gard B. Eidsvold). Rune is the local mob boss and Ulrik was once his loyal lackey. Ulrik’s most recent prison stint was for murdering the man his now ex-wife was shagging, and in exchange for very humble lodging (a dismal cement room in the basement of Rune’s sister’s home) and legitimate employment (as a garage mechanic) Rune tasks Ulrik with the whacking of a guy named Kenny (Henrik Mestad), the snitch who got Ulrik locked up in the first place.
While Rune has not changed, Ulrik quickly learns that the world has. The biggest change that seems to affect Ulrik the most is that smoking is no longer allowed in restaurants, and it is strongly discouraged in his friends’ cars, houses and even in his own bed. Every time he is told (or requested, depending on the situation) not to smoke somewhere, Ulrik appears completely perplexed. How dare anyone tell him that he cannot smoke a cigarette wherever he pleases!
Prior to his arrest, Ulrik did all of Rune’s bidding without question or second thought. Rune now expects Ulrik to fall right back into the fold, but Ulrik is a changed and somewhat gentle man now; he has learned to think for himself, and no longer needs Rune to think for him. Ulrik is much more interested in patching things up with his estranged grown son, maybe even finding a lover to share his life with, than murdering anyone. (It is people like Ulrik who keep Norway’s recidivism rates low.) But of course Rune does not take to kindly to Ulrik’s decision…
Throughout the film, Ulrik makes other attempts at reconnection and redemption as well. His somewhat gentle demeanor paired with his ex-con status seems to make Ulrik a hot commodity with the local ladies — notably his landlady (Jorunn Kjellsby), his ex-wife and the garage secretary (Jannike Kruse). These not quite gorgeous dames drop their panties for Ulrik and he reacts with total indifference to this sexual resurgence; nonetheless he seems unable to decline a quick one, especially when it is paired with eating food. (Let’s just say that the very awkward propositions and the resulting sex scenes are the comedic highlights of A Somewhat Gentle Man.) These women are quite visibly defeated (some might say that they are beyond their “prime”); more importantly, they are very real people.
The subdued and precise characterizations add to Moland’s cinematic aesthetic of kitchen-sink realism, which he pairs quite flawlessly with a quirky dark humor that is akin to the Coen brothers, Jim Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismäki. Gorgeously lensed by cinematographer Philip Øgaard, the white and gray Norwegian milieu is faithfully lit by the otherworldly sub-Arctic light. What I find most intriguing about the coloring of this film is that Ulrik begins the film with a certain pale grayness in his skin tone, lending him an almost ghostly (you might also say soulless) appearance, but as he sheds his mobster past and commences his emotional and mental maturation, color (and life) seeps back into his body. (Then again, maybe it is all of the sex and fatty food…) Sure it sounds somewhat hokey that goodness would provide Ulrik with a healthier skin tone, but thankfully it plays out as a subtle visual metaphor and the subtlety works.
Yet another notch in the recently prolific A [fill in the blank] Man genre of cinema (A Single Man, A Serious Man), A Somewhat Gentle Man is a somewhat gentle film with a somewhat strong message about redemption and forgiveness. While I was typing this review my iPod fatefully played Merle Haggard’s “Branded Man” as if to remind me that if Ulrik was imprisoned in the United States then his reintegration into society (assuming that he was not given a life sentence or worse) would have been much more difficult. If only my iPod was intuitive enough to follow “Branded Man” with Phil Ochs’ brilliant anti-death penalty diatribe “Paul Crump”; that would have reminded me to work Ochs’ lyrics “If a man can change, then a man should live” into this review.