The brilliant Stellan Skarsgård stars as a snow plough driver-cum-vigilante who gets more than he bargained for in this pitch-black Norwegian comedy from writer-director Hans Petter Moland. After winning citizen of the year, Nils Dickman (Skarsgård) discovers that his son has been killed by local drug dealers in a case of mistaken identity. However, the death has been made to look like suicide and the authorities refuse to chase it up. So, armed with a sawn-off hunting rifle and his fists, Nils embarks on a quest to the very top of the cartel, killing each member as he goes along.
The literal translation of the film’s original title Kraftidioten is ‘The Prize Idiot’, which seems more appropriate than its English counterpart considering the irreverent whimsicality which parodies revenge films like Death Wish and Taken by heavily referencing Fargo and Tarantino, and its mocking attitude towards vigilantism and drug-trafficking (especially as the narrative becomes increasingly ludicrous and farcical by the final act of the picture).
The cast, appear to be having a whale of a time, and this makes for some wonderful scenes. Skarsgård is on top form on his journey through the stages of humble man, vicious killer, and bumbling revenge artist. After successfully dispatching of a number of gang members in increasingly macabre and blackly comic scenarios, Nils’s actions inadvertently spark off a gang war between native Norwegian Greven (Pal Sverre Hagen) and his cronies, and a Serbian group headed by Papa (Bruno Ganz). Nils turns to his former gangland brother ‘Wingman’ (Peter Andersson) to help him organize a hitman to kill Greven but his innocence and ineptitude just make matters worse. Throughout all this, Skarsgård commands an entirely convincing and dead pan performance no matter how ridiculous or dangerous the situation Nils is thrown in to.
Hagen is brilliant as the vegan gang leader, who owns a chain of bakeries to launder his drugs money. He skillfully treads the line between boob and psychopath in a role that combines merciless don with devoted, middle-class father. His Greven is reminiscent of Ralph Fiennes neurotic Harry in Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges, which is just one of the many films Disappearance owes a debt to. Ganz is inappropriately but gloriously hilarious as the cold yet caring Serbian Mob Boss, perfectly paternal to his henchmen but utterly ruthless with his enemies. His performance is pitch-perfect and displays just how versatile he is. Also, Andersson is great as Nils’s brother dragged in to the chaos Nils has accidentally set in motion. Despite his checkered past, he seems the most normal and likeable character in the whole film, enjoying his retirement and an honest life until he is consumed by catastrophe.
Indeed, there is a lot of charm in this film – from its cast, its beautiful locations in snowy Norway (and striking cinematography) to its relentlessly dark humour. Unfortunately, writer/director Moland becomes too distracted by his numerous plot points and the supporting characters become increasingly archetypal and weak as more and more are introduced, while the main characters are misplaced and forgotten – even Nils disappears for about twenty minutes and then seems half-formed for the rest of the film.
Moland has lots of good ideas and is a funny writer, but, by the end, his film feels like a mish-mash mesh of all of them rather than a well thought out, tightly-plotted farce that only uses his best ones. There are too many entertaining but indulgent subplots and sideshow scenes involving witty banter, set-ups, punchlines, and not a lot else, making Disappearance seem more like the TV series of Fargo than the more disciplined film version.
The film walks between the light and dark and comes out the right side with many laughs along the way, but it sacrifices a lot of its original charm and character in the process of plotting an increasingly convoluted and contrived narrative. Despite a strong start and a lot of fun overall, sadly, by the end the film becomes bloated by its own playfulness.