REVIEW: Stellan Skarsgård Leads Moody Ex-Con Drama Somewhat Gentle Man
The stoic drama A Somewhat Gentle Man is photographed in a palate of steel gray tones that match Stellan Skarsgård's complexion. It's a low-blood-pressure version of the kind of thing James M. Cain used to do in his sleep, and its filmmaking accomplishment is as minimalist as its narrative ambition is minimal. Man has the confidence of knowing exactly where it wants to go, and when it wants to arrive; however, you may be just as familiar with the territory as the driver.
When he's released from prison at the outset after a 12-year stretch, the withholding Ulrik (Skarsgård) is urged to stay clean: "Forward, Ulrik, forward," he's told. As he listens to the prison guard -- and just about everybody else -- slight flickers of expression cross his upper lip and an occasional eyebrow lift moves his brow, changes as fleeting as winter daylight. (When he steps out of the prison gates, a brazen merengue with a Tchaikovsky flavor signals bigger things.) Ulrik mostly wears a wary hint of a sneer; his lank tuft of ponytail gives more away than his face. For a long time, the sunniest thing in the picture is the orange shirt his friend and former crime associate, Jensen (Bjørn Floberg), wears--picked to set off his gold tooth. Perhaps predictably, Jensen's mission is to get Ulrik to pay a debt -- one that calls for recidivism.
"I didn't really think about it. I just did it," Ulrik responds when pressed for details about his crime. And that's his problem -- he now thinks about things. When he's told to track a potential victim, Ulrik would rather stalk the now grown son he left behind. The women barely show him a trace of acknowledgment, which, in a film like this means one thing; the more impassive he remains, the more doleful sex the handful of women in Man will break off for him, from his waitress ex-wife to the landlord who -- when she pushes her hair off her forehead and is caressed by a flattering shaft of lamplight -- looks like a young Fred Flintstone. Even the dismissive Merete (Jannike Kruse), who warns Ulrik that he'll never get in her pants, is soon struggling to find the beat with him as they bounce through what looks like the Dutch version of the Cabbage Patch.
The biggest achievement in A Somewhat Gentle Man is that director Hans Petter Moland and his cinematographer Philip Øgaard have worked out a visual scheme that befits the infinitesimal shifts of the protagonist's mood. The gradual changes start when Ulrik figures out a way to defeat the stolid Weather Channel stream on his on one-station cable box. His face cracks into an enormous smile when he succeeds in finding other fare to slightly enliven the ratty post-prison room he lives in; "So they've got have Dancing with the Stars in Poland, too?" his landlord grunts cheerfully.
As the film grinds on and Ulrik's lot improves, more stray bursts of color pop into view. By the time he's searching the aisles of a toy store, his cheeks are as rosy as those of the imitation-of-life plastic infants he studies. Skarsgård's Ulrik is plucky and bemused; he's played these knowing victims about to be rolled by the rear axle of Fate before and knows how to wring a few deft notes out of it. You'll appreciate his professionalism -- and the film's, too.