Stellan Skarsgard saves ‘In Order of Disappearance’

It’s hard to make violence in movies meaningful. So hard, in fact, that most movies, especially big budget releases, can’t get their head around it. The Norwegian action “In Order of Disappearance” looks, on the surface, like it treats death with gravity. If you look any deeper, however, this isn’t the case. Thankfully, the movie has a killer lead performance to lean on.

In rural Norway, the mild-mannered snowplow driver Nils lives with his wife. Soon after winning an award for being an excellent citizen, his son is killed and his murder covered up. Knowing the police won’t do anything, Nils aims to kill the person responsible. It’s not long until his mission for revenge sticks him in the middle of a brutal gang war.

On the one hand, the movie on its own feels disingenuous. The editing can be slipshod, the characters don’t feel fleshed out, and the story is generic as far as revenge thrillers go. On the other hand, it can be disarmingly funny and Stellan Skarsgard is at his best as Nils. If it weren’t for these two qualities, “In Order of Disappearance” would be another forgettable action flick.

Adding onto this, director Hans Petter Moland has a deft eye for parallels. From the beautiful opening shot, Nils plowing the snow and cutting to shaving his face, Moland shows his chops. He doesn’t stop there, either. While the story gets more generic, Moland gets more creative. His take on violence is especially mesmerizing. The kills are creative, often brutal, but he tows the line between exploring and exploiting them.

The cinematography deepens this balance. Like so many Norwegian action or crime flicks, “In Order of Disappearance” is a grayscale beauty. Rural Norway is a setting ripe for despair. It’s vast, though it never overcrowds the people inhabiting it. Like any good movie, “Disappearance” sticks with its main character and diverges only where necessary. Skarsgard makes that easy. Where Nils could’ve become another boring Mr. Chips to Scarface downfall story, Skarsgard keeps him from becoming a cliche.

The problem is how quickly Nils reverts. Skarsgard makes the transition less jarring, but the movie doesn’t establish his character with enough specificity to make his almost immediate decision to wreak vengeance feel haphazard.

At best, “In Order of Disappearance” is the thinking man’s action movie. It’s got enough depth for the intellectual crowd and enough blood for the gorehounds. It certainly has its problems, but Skarsgard carries the movie in spite of them. Aiding him, Moland’s observant lens adds style to an otherwise empty, violent exercise. It tries to be otherwise, but don’t be fooled without Skarsgard the movie would be nothing new.

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