In Order of Disappearance Review

A man is strangled in the back of a van, his body wrapped in chicken wire and tossed over a ravine. As the corpse plummets a bluesy gospel song bellows on the soundtrack and a black screen with a simple white cross and the name of the dearly departed flashes on screen. This is the first time that Nils Dickman will kill a man, and it won’t be the last.

Nils is a foreign born snowplough operator, clearing roads and living a quiet, serene, life with his wife in rural Norway. When his son is murdered in recrimination for the actions of his friend, Nils finds his world slowly dissolving. Alone in his garage, the barrel of his hunting rifle in his mouth, the intrusion of his son’s friend and subsequent confession of what really happened externalises his suicidal desire into righteous, murderous, fury. Person by person Nils dismantles the organisation of a local criminal called ‘The Count’, moving further up the chain with each murder. The Count feeling that he is being threatened by a rival group, abducts, tortures and murders one of them, only to find out it is the only son of the gang’s boss, Papa and the catalyst for a catastrophic gang war.

In its opening act In Order of Disappearance appears to be another entry into the ever expanding oeuvre of films concerned with the cyclical nature of violence. In fact for its first half hour I found myself becoming steadily deflated as I came to terms with the fact that I was in for yet another nihilistic parable. However a sudden shift of focus heralds a change of tone and reveals a film that is far more blacky comic than existentially anguished. In fact the longer the film goes on, the more of the cartoonish heart shines through. The major joy of In Order of Disappearance is how whole heartedly absurd it becomes, and much the film engages with that absurdity. It owes a major debt to American crime cinema, particularly the ironically detached glut of post Tarantino crime films in the mid to late 90s, but absolutely refuses to take the material seriously. It is telling that the original Norwegian title of the film translates to ‘The Prize Idiot’, as the film deals with the cascading consequences of poorly thought out action. In fact there’s a touch of Elmore Leonard to the majority of the characters, idiots with aspirations slowly scheming their way to a grisly end. In fact despite the harshness of its opening, and the films occasional slips into brutality In Order of Disappearance feels very much more like a pitch black comedy than a crime film. It is just the kind of comedy that expects you to find at least a little humour in the image of a group of sombre pallbearers being lifted onto the back of a lorry by way of an agonisingly slow hydraulic lift.

At the heart of the film are three central characters, Nils Dickman (Stellan Skarsgård), The Count (Pål Sverre Hagen) and Papa (Bruno Ganz). Whilst initially the film looks set to be singularly focused on Dickman’s methodical vengeance, its second act splits the narrative between him and The Count, with the third act marginalising Dickman to focus on the escalating conflict between The Count and Papa. Skarsgård is the driving force of the film, but it is tough to refer to him as the heart of the movie. Largely because Nils spends much of the movie on the outskirts of the plot, perplexed by the lurid world has found himself in. There is an amusingly unflappable element to Nils and Skarsgård invests the character with a quiet dignity that is even apparent when he has his mouth wrapped around the barrel of his own gun. There are lots of elements that put us into Nils shoes and allow us to empathise with the character, one of the biggest being the way the film presents the city where The Count’s operation is based. Surrounded by a sea of snow, the film focusing on the more alien aspects of its architecture, we’re supposed to be as thrown off by the city as much as Nils is. The city and the surrounding rural area play host to an equal amount of violence, but the city is a place of cold indifference. Where a dead man can be dropped off on a bench, his corpse left to slump to the side and no one will bat an eyelid. The city is cruelty in every facet and it is very much the dominion of The Count.

The Count is a twitchy, frenetic, ball of energy and Hagen’s performance is most definitely a love it or hate it kind of thing. But his over the top performance, his mania and domineering screen presence are a big part of the film’s tonal shift to full absurd comedy. Larger than life, literally and figuratively with The Count at least a head taller than most of his flunkies, The Count is the kind of character who wouldn’t make much sense in a rational world, but perfectly exemplifies the heightened rationale of the fictionalised world he occupies. With his hair trigger temper, complicated family life, and general psychotic demeanour it’s amazing that his organisation stayed intact as long as it did. He’s the kind of character who gets just as angry over his ex-wife questioning his choice of breakfast for his son as he does Nils destroying kilos of coke. The contrasting energy of Hagen and Skarsgård gives the first and second acts of the film a sometimes contradictory tone. The humour in Nils scenes is a little low key, a little subtle. Whilst scenes involving The Count often descend into hilarious histrionics, with sometimes literal punch lines.

The arrival of Papa, head of a group of Serbian gangsters sharing a tenuous peace with The Count, acts as a middle ground between the two.

Papa embodies the loss and anger that Nils feels, but is also allowed moments of broader comedy. This largely stems from being adjacent to the antics of his cronies, who are rambunctious and vicious in equal measure. But despite this Papa is something of a coiled viper. His frailty, quiet voice and air of sadness contrasted with the sudden violence he inflicts on people. Despite being something of a cipher Papa is given a relatable quality and an overarching sense of loss and sadness due to a sympathetic performance by Gans. In fact Gans makes Papa, one of the more humane characters in the film. In contrast Skarsgård roots Nils’ vengeance from a place of nihilism and desire for justice. Meanwhile Papa’s grief is all encompassing and deeply emotional, there’s a rage at the heart of the character and that rage is the main propulsion of the back half of the film.

If there is a problem with the film is that it structure has the effect of transforming the entire film into something of a shaggy dog story. Because the focus, and particularly the emotional drive, of the film switches between Nils, The Count and Papa it gets to a point where the film is on the cusp of losing any narrative through line it had. Combined with slightly flabby pacing, especially towards the end of the second act where the film has to move a lot of pieces into place, In Order of Disappearance can sometimes feel like it’s struggling to not just make a point, but have actually have a point. But on a scene by scene basis the film is fun and beautifully constructed with three very different performances at its core and a bevy of great supporting players. It is at its heart the blackest kind of comedy and if you’re willing to engage with the film on that level, it succeeds. But for viewers who are trying to unpick a central thesis, or engage with the characters, they may find themselves in for a rather hollow, nihilistic time.

Spike Marshall

Updated: Sep 19, 2014

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