The Keeper of Lost Causes (Kvinden i buret) and The Absent One (Fasandraeberne) movies review: good clean nasty Nordic noir
Grim treats, mining suspense and urgency from intensely plotted dual timelines of brutal criminality. A must for fans of rumpled, cynical, bitter detectives.
I’m “biast” (pro):
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
What’s the biggest movie — by a long shot — in Denmark at the moment? It’s not Zootopia or Batman v Superman. It’s A Conspiracy of Faith (Flaskepost fra P), the third in the series based on Jussi Adler-Olsen’s internationally bestselling Department Q crime novels… and that’s in its sixth week of release. Danish moviegoers love brooding, tenacious Copenhagen cop Carl Mørck so much that they made the first two films,The Keeper of Lost Causes (Kvinden i buret) and The Absent One (Fasandraeberne), among the biggest hits the country’s film industry has ever seen.
I finally caught up with Keeper — which had a theatrical release here in the UK two summers ago, and is now available on demand and DVD — just in time for the theatrical release of Absent… and what a treat all around. For grim, Nordic-noir values of “treat,” that is. You know who you are, if you like lots of rainy nighttime stakeouts, clean Ikea interiors contrasted with criminal twistedness, and plenty of nasty mystery-solving popcorn pleasure.
And you sure as heck had better be a fan of rumpled, cynical, bitter detectives. Carl — played by Nikolaj Lie Kaas (Child 44, A Second Chance) with a wonderful misery — is everything we love to pity in a cop antihero. He’s brilliant, moody, and arrogant; he breaks all the rules and gets suspended and goes on to solve the case anyway, dammit. Nobody likes him, but he’s the sort of cop about whom other cops say things like “he’s the best cop I ever met.” He drinks too much, of course, and is guaranteed to screw up whatever personal relationships he might have, and so other cops also say things like, “I never met anyone as destructive as him.” And while he may get literally beaten up — like, a lot — he cannot be beaten down. As Keeper opens, he is returning from a mandatory three-month leave after his partner is left paralyzed and another colleague is killed while they are on a homicide investigation. His boss, Marcus (Søren Pilmark), won’t put him back in the homicide squad — everyone there refuses to work with him — and relegates him to Department Q, which rubber-stamps cold-case files so that they can be quietly closed. It’s intended as a career-killer.
Ah, but Carl is a real cop! He wants to actually investigate these old unsolved cases, much to the astonishment of Assad (Fares Fares: Zero Dark Thirty, Easy Money: Hard to Kill), the only guy in Department Q before Carl’s arrival. (We don’t learn, at least in these first two films, what Assad has done to warrant Department Q punishment. Maybe it’s in the books?) For their first case in Keeper — the UK edition of the book is titled Mercy; the US edition bears the same name as the film — Carl fixates, because he is the kind of guy who fixates, on the case three years earlier of a minor politician, Merete Lynggaard (Sonja Richter: When Animals Dream), who is presumed to have committed suicide by jumping overboard the ferry she disappeared from. But Carl instantly sees the problem with this scenario that the investigating detectives at the time missed or — more likely, in Carl’s mind, since none of those other cops are dedicated to the job the way he is — just didn’t give any thought to: If she were going to kill herself, why would she have brought along her brain-damaged brother, Uffe (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard: A Royal Affair), to whom she was devoted, and who required constant attention? She wouldn’t have, is the answer, hence she was murdered. Obviously.
The prospect of delving into old unsolved cases sounds as if there’s not much chance of suspense or urgency in the telling, but not so: director Mikkel Nørgaard and screenwriter Nikolaj Arcel (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the upcoming adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower) mine plenty of both from a mystery that is far more convoluted than it initially appears. And that is even more true of Absent One (the book is called Disgrace in the UK), again from Nørgaard and Arcel, in which Carl and Assad dive into deeper into the past, back to the 20-year-old murder of twin teenagers. It’s not even an officially unsolved case, nor is it one from Department Q’s files. Carl is a little bit famous now, after the resolution of the Lynggaard disappearance is made public, which is bringing nutters out of the woodwork, such as the disgraced cop from another jurisdiction who has not been able to let go of the double murder, because it was his own children who were the victims, even though someone was convicted and imprisoned for the crime. He was convinced other killers were involved, and so when he commits suicide after Carl turns him away, Carl inherits what Assad calls the old man’s “loony box,” his “evidence” of two decades’ accumulation. Carl is not inclined to do much with it, but Department Q’s intrepid new secretary, Rose (Johanne Louise Schmidt), is already digging into the files and getting things organized. And as soon as a tantalizing loose end turns up, Carl is hooked.
Carl and Assad discover that the one person who went down for the murders, Bjarne Thøgersen (Adam Ild Rohweder as a teen, Kristian Høgh Jeppesen today), was a poor townie who had been hanging out with some rich kids from the posh boarding school nearby, and there are some suspicious financial issues in Thøgersen’s life that suggest a deeper, more nefarious connection. That sets Carl and Assad on a hunt for one of their old crowd, Kimmie (Sarah-Sofie Boussnina as a teen, Danica Curcic today), who can provide answers to questions that should have been asked 20 years before. Keeper jumps back and forth in time too, but Absent is much more intense and pointed with its dual timelines, crafted an unsettling portrait of how spoiled, privileged brats morph into vicious, ruthless adult bastards; the always marvelous Pilou Asbaek (A War, Lucy) plays the grownup version of the worst of them, and he is deliciously awful. But Absent also has a lot of sympathy for women who lose themselves under the thumbs of terrible men they have convinced themselves they love, which nicely balances out the more traditional and brutal damselling of Keeper.
These two flicks are good clean nasty fun, if you like this sort of thing. I can’t wait for the next one.
(U.S. arthouse audiences will eventually have the chance to see what the Department Q fuss is about — Sundance Selects has picked the series,
though there’s no word on release dates yet and all three films are getting a very limited theatrical release starting June 17th; they’re also be available on VOD on the same day. This is why I highly recommend, to all US film fans, a region-free DVD player and regular DVD shopping sprees on Amazon UK. The transatlantic shipping is much cheaper than you’d expect, you don’t pay VAT, and you don’t have to wait for good stuff.)
All three Department Q films will screen at New York City’s IFC Center June 17th through June 23rd.