Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Jar City (2006) ****

Fans of somber, hard-nosed police procedurals will find much to like in Jar City. Set in Reykjavik and environs, director Baltasar Kormákur lays on the Icelandic atmospherics with a trowel, and every scene is washed in a cold and forbidding blue-green patina.

Here we follow a jaded, crotchety detective named Erlundur (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) as he investigates the murder of a middle-age bachelor whose only distinguishing characteristic was an obvious addiction to internet porn. Meanwhile, a young forensic scientist (Atli Rafn Sigurðsson), can only watch helplessly as his daughter lies dying in a local hospital; her fatal illness caused by a rare genetic disorder.

While these events are seemingly unrelated, Erlundur uses an old photograph found at the victim’s home to methodically trace a web of violence and corruption back 30 years to the jail cell of a notorious sociopath (Theódór Júlíusson), whose decades in prison have made him old and flabby – but no less dangerous.

But all is not treeless landscapes and bleak gray skies, as Jar City has its moments of earthy humor and eccentricity, and Erlundur’s relationship with his young partner Oli (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) provides many of them. Oli, trained in America, clearly considers himself a sophisticate and Icelandic cops clueless rubes; a misconception Erlundr crustily dispels at every turn. And then there’s the mercifully brief glimpses into rustic Icelandic cuisine which, suffice to say, is not a threat to French or Italian.

In fact, munching on any kind of snack while watching Jar City is an activity only for the hardy, as Erlundr’s ongoing investigation necessitates the exhuming of long dead bodies, numerous autopsies and an eerie visit to the crime lab’s formaldehyde vault, where human organs and body parts float like grotesque pickles in cloudy containers.

Jar City ultimately rises above typical detective fare due to the strength of its characters and clever writing, aided greatly by Iceland’s gloomy sense of light and space. It’s great fun to watch this undermanned (an apparently unarmed) police force tackle difficult and dangerous situations with a stoic sense of resolute duty. And through Inspector Erlundur’s world weary eyes, we see how a contemporary version of original sin may bear deadly fruit for generations to come.


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