[Though the 2007 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival is still two weeks away as I type this, the festival pre-screens a number of titles for accredited Toronto area press in advance of the festival. These screenings started yesterday, launching my official start point for TIFF season on a very strong foot with Baltasar Kormakur's very much anticipated Jar City.]
A stark and elegaic piece of work the latest from Iceland's Baltasar Kormakur is an unlikely box office hit and yet it has become precisely that. While the film has been winning acclaim and awards on the international festival circuit it has also been shattering box office records in its homeland. This is a striking argument that Icelandic audiences are more intelligent by far than their North American counterparts. Kormakur returns here to the existentialist, noir-tinted thriller territory that he last visited with his English-language feature A Little Trip To Heaven in a film that weaves a murder mystery around the unspeakable grief that comes with out-living your own child.
We begin in a darkened office of a genetics research hospital, a man - Orn - worn and haggard signing papers as his daughter lies dying of an incurable genetic disorder just rooms away. Having devoted his working life to tracking and treating these rare disorders he is now about to become victim to one, a truly cruel twist of irony, and he knows there is not a thing he can do to stop it. The lullaby he sings his little girl, very likely the last thing she hears during her too-brief time in this world, is picked up by a full police choir in dress uniform and then we cut to ...
... a small child playing with a toy car in a room that is not his own, in a home foreign to him. Another child - a sibling? a friend? - comes to claim him, alarmed at the blood on the broken glass in the rear door, horrified at the corpse lying in a pool of its own congealed blood next to where the child is playing. The dead man is Holger, a truck driver with no family of his own and seemingly no personal connections to explain why someone may have wanted to cave in his skull with an ashtray. The investigating officer, Erlendur, is a rumpled and weathered man long past caring about social niceties, himself the father of a daughter long since lost to a serious drug addiction, a daughter who appears in his life only when desperate for cash.
As Erlendur and his team piece together Holger's life, hoping that by understanding the man they may at least find a motive for his murder, they are led down a path to crimes long since forgotten. A woman likely raped. A corrupt policeman. A suicide. A child dead far too young. A man missing for decades. The key to understanding Holger's death, apparently, lies in unravelling a story played out literally decades before, a story everyone involved with would much rather forget.
Jar City is a film haunted by its children. Beneath the trappings of the murder that drives the narrative this is a film about children, about both the grief of their loss and the damage our own actions can inflict upon them generations later. As disparate as the characters may be this is the one point that unites them all: they have all lost their children in some way. That loss is taken as a given, what defines them from that point on is how they have chosen to respond. Jar City is a film that suits its environment perfectly, Kormakur making stellar use of the island nation's bleak and blasted landscapes to reflect the inner lives of his characters, each of whom exists in some different stance towards this barren reality: one who defies, one who mourns, one who gives himself over.
Kormakur is obviously a phenomenal talent, incredibly gifted with both pen and camera, but his talent would be wasted if not for two key members of his cast, who put a human face on the proceedings. Atli Rafn Sigurðsson - familiar to Kormakur fans from his part in 101 Reykjavík - plays his role as Orn with an understated restraint, playing perfectly the role of a man trying to remain outwardly calm in the face of an overwhelming tragedy. Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson - recently seen at TIFF as the titular monster in Beowulf and Grendel - plays the anti-hero flawlessly as Erlendur, the gruff, disheveled cop with an endless supply of battered sweaters and a fondness for boiled sheep's head who must unravel the long tangled threads of this mystery.
Jar City is worlds away from the typical Hollywood murder mystery. A Little Trip To Heaven was a fascinating, if flawed, first attempt at this sort of material but while Kormakur seemed a little tentative there, a little unsure of how to twist the crime trappings into something he could make uniquely his own, he has found his stride here. Jar City is a striking, if understated, piece of work.