Sheep Head Noir From The Frozen North
Jar City, Dir: Baltasar Kormákur, Now Playing at the IFC
There’s much to be learned about Iceland from the bleak new noir Jar City:
1) Hardened, cynical, monosyllabic Icelandic homicide dicks pull up to drive-in takeaway windows—at establishments where they’re all crushed out on the serving girl—and order ‘the usual’: sheep head. ‘Sheep head’ sounds like Icelandic slang for almost anything other than a sheep head, but no...The serving girl hands the hardened, cynical, monosyllabic Icelandic homicide dick a luscious cooked sheep’s head under plastic wrap with mashed potatoes on the side, all ready for the microwave.
2) Hardened, cynical, monosyllabic Icelandic homicide dicks consume their pre-cooked sheep heads in their lonely apartments by gripping the sheep head at the jaw hinge, tearing off the upper half of the head, holding that head-half just above the sheep teeth and gnawing off succulent, juicy hunks.
3) Sheep head takes some chewing.
4) There are no attractive women in Iceland except the serving girl at the sheep head takeaway. Every other woman in Iceland is either a) side-show overweight or b) past seventy and really bitter.
5) Icelandic men are either a) tall, spare and monosyllabic or b) horribly fat, multi-chinned and physically degraded.
6) Icelanders are perpetually cranky.
7) Or drunk.
8) Or both.
9) Cranky/drunk Icelanders can tell hardened, cynical, monosyllabic Icelandic homicide dicks to piss off with no apparent criminal, civil or physical repercussions.
10) The most wounding insult for an Icelandic man is to be called a pussy.
11) Icelandic men who don’t chain-smoke or gnaw mad sheep head are pussies. Icelandic women tell them so, right to their faces.
12) Icelandic men attempting to order a vegan meal in an Icelandic cafeteria-roadhouse are told: “You’ll find none of that guacamole bullshit here, asshole!”
13) Icelandic men and women really do wear those frightening sweaters with antler designs and buttons the size of Communion wafers.
14) The landscape in Iceland makes everyone feel insignificant and temporary upon this earth. They then drink to excess and feel cranky.
15) Forensic police in Iceland handle decades-old corpses without benefit of rubber gloves.
16) All Icelanders are related to one another through a confined and isolated pool of common genetic material. Yet none of them sit on their porches playing the theme to Deliverance on their banjos.
17) Everywhere in Iceland looks simultaneously end-of-the-world apocalyptic, industrially wastelandic, repetitively bourgeois and smugly moderne.
18) Icelandic doctor/expert types have perfectly symmetrical, perfectly groomed snow-white beards.
19) In Iceland there is no shortage of thick white steam. It blows across bleak Icelandic highways in clingy, lingering, existential clouds.
20) Obese, multi-chinned, raving homicidal Icelandic loonies escape from solitary confinement with ease.
21) In Iceland, even the happy endings are tragic.
There’s a wonderful moment in the haunting, lyrical, self-consciously beautiful and faithless 1997 Swedish noir Insomnia when Stellan Skarsgård attempts to interrogate a surly Norwegian high school rapist. “I don’t speak fucking Swedish,” the dude tells Stellan. And since neither do we, we suddenly understand, without excessive exposition on the director’s part, that Stellan is a fish out of water, a herring out of Stockholm, flummoxed by the incomprehensible ways of his brunette neighbors to the east. And they are equally baffled by him.
Similar moments abound in the astonishing, streamlined, brutal Danish cinéma vérité street sagas Pusher (1996), Pusher II: With Blood On My Hands (2004) and Pusher III: I’m the Angel of Death (2005). It’s not clear which Scandinavian city hosts these gritty, post-Scorsese, post-Dogme blood-fests. Wherever it is, it offers plenty of smack, crank, blow, whores and hoodlums killing each other over the right to sell same. The Pusher protagonists must cope with their own rabidly self-destructive natures, constantly escalating social/financial debt and extremely violent immigrant neighbors and co-workers. Some of these immigrants hail from the Middle East and some from Mother Russia. Their violence pushes the Danish (Swedish? Norwegian?) locals to behave even more like degraded animals than they usually might, which is plenty.
The Pusher series passed straight to DVD without benefit of American theatrical release. The Pushers form the most engaging, rigorous and thrilling body of thrillers made in the last decade, and the finest trilogy of films, period. Each one bests the last. Each is more violent, direct, credible and better cast than the previous. And each features mercifully less Swedish (Danish? Norwegian?) death metal on its rigorously ambient soundtrack. The only other trilogy that constantly improved would be Leone’s Clint Eastwood Westerns. If you disagree, please go rent Godfather III.
Jar City comes from Iceland, a land we’ve been indoctrinated to believe consists of high-cheekboned girls and boys giddily bouncing around low-ceilinged bars listening to Sigur Rós cover John Phillip Sousa or something equally Icelandically loveable and incongruous. Or else they’re all getting along famously while sneering at outsiders who don’t share their island utopia and limited, self-regenerating high-cheekboned gene pool. Perhaps if Iceland, Sweden and Denmark weren’t held as the very models of social utopia, the deep strain of hopelessness that infects these far northern noirs might be less shocking. Clearly American capitalist society generates crippling nihilism and inertia in every sensitive citizen. But way up and over there they’ve got in its place socialized medicine and free bus service, etc.. What’s bothering them all so?
Whatever social benefits he enjoys, the hardened, cynical, monosyllabic Icelandic homicide dick at the core of Jar City is being devoured from the inside out by something. And so, apparently, is everyone else (except maybe the vegan-ordering, non-smoking, non-sheep-head gnawing assistant homicide dick: you know, the pussy.) And as they are being eaten from within, recurring close-ups of steaming, viscous gobbets of animal flesh being shoveled into gaping Icelandic maws would suggest that Icelanders are simultaneously devouring their culture and taking little nourishment from the meal. Everyone stares—with a full belly—shell-shocked into the Icelandic middle distance with such resignation, such knowing acquiescence to Lutheran predestination. And yet, they strive to make order out of Icelandic chaos.
Jar City shares with Insomnia and the Pusher trilogy a believable, tragic sense of ever-present doom and an atmosphere in which every action—except those that stave off existential nausea by way of degraded kicks—is demonstrably meaningless. The spare, tough style of these films mirrors the air of dread and futility, of the claustrophobia of the social and interior prisons confining the characters. There’s a welcome Scandinavian horror of decoration driving Jar City, and the director holds the mood with only an occasional slip into self-indulgence.
Given that noirs are usually set in big cities, it might seem strange that so tiny a population could develop unsolvable crimes. But in such an isolated place, everyone’s business is everyone business. Which is why, of course, everyone’s becomes furtive and rotted from within by all their repression. With all those prying eyes, the social contract survives only under an self-imposed ethos of wide-spread passive aggression. No one can tell anyone off to their face—everybody has to see everybody else at the supermarket the next day. So everyone conceals their grudges and seethes.
ContributorDavid N. Meyer
David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.