I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
If you’ve enjoyed the new remake of RoboCop — or even if you didn’t — you can’t go wrong by checking out newly minted Hollywood leading man Joel Kinnaman in a fantastic film made on his home turf of Sweden. (Were you fooled by Kinnaman’s flawless American accent? He’s not American.) Easy Money, from 2010, had only a small release in North America in 2012, unsurprising given the general lack of interest by U.S. audiences in reading subtitles. Its similarly limited release in the U.K. in 2013 is surprising, however, because “Nordic noir” — of which this is a spectacular example — is something of a pop culture phenomenon in the U.K. at the moment. (No one here seems to mind reading subtitles in order to wallow in dark, moody, morally ambiguous stories about murder and corruption in the snow, not just at the cinema but across many episodes of imported television dramas as well.)
Easy Money — original Swedish title: Snabba cash — gives us Kinnaman’s Stockholm university student JW, who is finding that driving a taxi between classes and selling term papers to other students isn’t enough to fund the lavish lifestyle he aspires to. The fact that Kinnaman is actually more than a tad too old to be wholly convincing as a student is worth overlooking, because the yearning he brings to JW is extraordinary, partly because of how he makes you vacillate between feeling sorry for him and feeling like you want to smack some sense into him. (Watch how his early cockiness, when he thinks he’s got all the answers, morphs into horror, when he realizes what a shithole he’s dug for himself.) He’s a poor kid from the wrong side of town, and he has gotten himself in a real mess: having wormed his way into a crowd of rich assholes, including his “pal” Nippe (Joel Spira: Anno 1790), by pretending to be one of them, he’s finding the facade increasingly difficult to maintain, especially once he has to convince the lovely — and wealthy — Sophie (Lisa Henni) that he’s an appropriate catch for her. Kinnaman and director Daniel Espinosa (who went to Hollywood after this and made Safe House) mine a lot of pathos out of little moments, like when JW pops the buttons off a new cheap shirt and painstakingly sews on fancier ones, presumably salvaged from a finer garment, the better to fool his friends.
Smart, affecting little details like that mean that it’s okay that this slow burn of a movie — based on the novel by Jens Lapidus and adapted by Espinosa, Maria Karlsson, Fredrik Wikström, and Hassan Loo Sattarvandi — takes its time getting JW mixed up with Serbian mobsters who need some help laundering their drug money. JW is an economics student, see, and he comes up with a criminally brilliant idea to merge legit banking with dirty money, thereby also solving a problem for his rich friends, who have been having money troubles too, since the 2008 crash. It all becomes rather a moral cesspool conflating high finance and organized crime, and in such a way that if you didn’t already figure there wasn’t much difference between the two, you certainly won’t now. The hefty dollop of… let’s call it schadenfraud? It’s delicious.
While JW is sinking to a level at which crime starts to become a “good” option for him, we are being introduced to some of the bad guys JW will get mixed up in: Jorge (Matias Varela), who has just escaped from prison, and Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic), the mob enforcer who’s hunting Jorge for the Serbs, whom Jorge is also trying to escape. They offer intriguing contrasts to JW, for while the student is adrift and alone, seemingly estranged from his family and haunted by the disappearance of his sister years earlier, Jorge is about to become an uncle, and Mrado has just been lumbered with his eight-year-old daughter (Lea Stojanov). (Mrado tries to explain to social services why he is unable to look after the kid, whom he really does adore, but since he can’t actually tell them what his job is, how demanding it is, or why it doesn’t mesh with full-time parenting, he’s stuck with her.) It doesn’t actually make them more sympathetic than JW — though they’re not much less sympathetic than him, either — but their family connections next to JW’s lack thereof only underscores the student’s loneliness, and the sense that all he really needs is a hug and a true friend, one he doesn’t feel the need to lie to. It makes him all the more tragic.
If the message of Easy Money is, perhaps, “There’s no such thing,” that of the sequel, Easy Money: Hard to Kill — new in limited release in the U.S. and also available on demand — might be: “There’s no going back.”
It’s no spoiler, probably, to reveal that at the end of Easy Money, JW has gotten himself thrown into prison. Here, it’s three years later, and he’s just about to have his first unsupervised leave. (This is Sweden, remember: they’re more liberal about these things than the U.S. is, and even a violent felon, as JW had become, is entitled to a little vacation from the clink.) He’s spent his time in prison doing tax returns for guards — very Shawshank Redemption — and writing software for doing stock trades, partnered in a new business with the aforementioned rich-jerk “friend” Nippe. But Nippe screws him over, and — in a much much bigger punch in the gut — informs JW that the class he craves for himself is now out of his reach forever, since he’s now a convicted criminal. That may or may not be true, but JW takes it to heart… and it crushes him.
How Kinnaman plays JW’s devastation, as seething, mounting rage, is the best thing about Hard to Kill. For replacing Espinosa as director is Babak Najafi, and he is unable to imbue what is again a slow-moving story — as JW declines to return to prison and reconnects with his mob colleagues — with the same emotional suspense the first film offered. Perhaps Hard to Kill is a victim of middle-movie syndrome, and the third film in the trilogy, Easy Money: Life Deluxe (which has currently only been released in Scandinavia), will bring a satisfying resolution to JW’s story. Here, though, we have to settle for the isolated pleasure of watching Kinnaman transform JW from a rather nice but deluded young man into a hardened villain, and for the bitter irony that it wasn’t prison that did that, but rejection by supposedly proper society.