Jar City Review

The Film

In recent times, the detective mystery has taken on the explicit function of social commentary. It is true that back in the heyday of film noir that hard boiled dicks uncovered webs of intrigue in their mysteries, but historically the genre has concentrated on exclusively moral tales about decent detectives. Recently, the decent detective has become more politically and socially interested and the focus of their enquiries has often turned full circle back on to themselves as parents, neighbours and citizens. I am not talking Morse or Barnaby here, but more creations like Wallander who the Beeb have recently brought to our screens via the middle aged angst of Kenneth Branagh's paunch.
This decent detective is someone who can see the world around them only too clearly, in fact they probably see more than is good for them. Loneliness and self loathing are the rewards for their insights, and for all they see of society's ills they are powerless when these dangers and corruptions reach their own front door. Such reflection changes the nature of mystery stories from whodunnit to whatdunnit as it is almost the case that killers and thieves are seen as social symptoms rather than evil perps.

Hopefully this all sounds a bit dour and Northern European, because Jar City has both of those qualities in spades. Here, we follow an ageing cop as he investigates the death of an alleged rapist, uncovering the cops own personal life of a junkie daughter and a solitary flat, and reaching a resolution that offers little happiness or moral uplift. We end with a detective who understands the motivation of his quarry too well and with a strong sense that the events we have seen are as much a function of our bad biology as our "broken society".
What relief that gets through this dense fog of social and genetic disaster in this Icelandic tale is provided by blackly comic and cutting humour. Erlandur, our detective, is no PC PC as he forces his colleagues to passively smoke and offers their bodies as targets for violence that he can see coming and elects to avoid. He still cares about the world he polices though; he will despair of crooked cops and he will continue to protect his desperate daughter from herself.

The tale is told with plenty of support from the bleak locations of rural and coastal Iceland with permanently grey skies and an unrelenting sense of doomed regression. Rather than hide the killer's identity the story explains their motivations and renders them sympathetic with a plot device that is relatively novel in this much repeated genre. I can't avoid a comparison with the recent Wallander treatments but Jar City clearly pre-dates the Beeb and is more concerned about its social project than those works. My only real criticism of a well acted and intelligent film, is that I did find myself wondering whether this was cinema or merely big television.
Jar City is both a social and biological mystery that in chasing a killer considers whether the fault lies within ourselves or our society, and whether anything can be done about it anyway. Depressing, quite gripping and definitely worth a wider audience than I imagine it will receive.

Transfer and Sound

Obviously the visuals for the film encourage a gritty and rather dark aesthetic and this is supported by the transfer. The image is surprisingly grainy for a two year old movie and some of this may be down to some shooting on 16mm. Contrast is dependable, colours are de-saturated and the image is never too dark. Detail is very good, which given the plentiful device of the camera exploring faces for what may be hidden in the shadows and cracks is important for this treatment. Edges are left natural and the transfer overall is above average.
Atmospherics are important here with the rural locales and the wild weather and the option of the 5.1 track means a strong sub woofer track to represent the winds and the sounds of the road. The other channels are mastered cleanly but this isn't the kind of film to boast elaborate surround effects and the non fussy audio here is just the ticket. Sadly, the well compiled and grammatical subtitles are burnt in - when will DVD companies ever learn?

Discs and Special Features

This release is the bare bones with no frills at all. A pity really as the film is adapted from a series of novels and more information about the author and the series of books would have been welcome. The disc is dual layer and possesses a basic menu.


I really enjoyed this. The plethora of detective shows on TV rather devalue the art of making mystery stories with their homogeneous plots and homogeneous grumpy white men doing the work. Jar City is a little different and very well made. Seek it out

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