Jar City (Mýrin)

Rating 4

Directed by Baltasar Kormákur

Written by Baltasar Kormákur, based on the novel by Arnaldur Indriðason

Starring Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson, Ágústa Eva Erlendsdóttir, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson, Ólafia Hrönn Jónsdóttir, Atli Rafn Sigurðsson, Kristbjörg Kjeld, Þorsteinn Gunnarsson, Theódór Júlíusson, Þórunn Magnea Magnúsdóttir and Rafnhildur Rósa Atladótir

Chain-smoking and world-weary police detective, Erlendur (a fabulous brooding performance by Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson), is brought in to investigate the murder of a man named Holberg (Þorsteinn Gunnarsson), who has died in his squalid and stinking apartment as a result of a hard blow to the head with an ashtray. Holberg, judging by the images on his computer and the stack of magazines found in the lorry he drives for work, was addicted to porn.

Erlendur finds an old photograph taped to the bottom of a drawer in Holberg’s apartment – a picture of a grave bearing the name Aude. This leads him to investigate the death of a four-year-old girl some thirty years earlier, an accusation of rape that was never prosecuted and the disappearance of a petty criminal around the same time, against a backdrop of his fractured relationship with his troubled, pregnant, drug-addicted, former prostitute daughter Eva (Ágústa Eva Erlendsdóttir).

‘Jar City’ is, I think, the first film from Iceland I have ever watched. Based on the novel ‘Mýrin’ (translated as ‘Tainted Blood’) by the celebrated crime-thriller writer Arnaldur Indriðason, it is not exactly a barrel of laughs. Set against a wet, stormy and grey backdrop of crumbling nondescript buildings and self-loathing, it paints a particularly bleak and depressing picture of Icelandic society. The film it most puts me in mind of is ‘Get Carter’, the classic 1971 Mike Hodges film that tells the unrelentingly grim story of a hardened London gangster who travels up to Newcastle to find out the truth about the death of his brother.

An aura of grey despair, distrust and melancholia envelopes the film from start to finish. There is no sense of hope whatsoever, although there are a couple of strange comic moments to be found here involving Erlendur’s younger colleague Sigurður Óli (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson); one when he is required to knock on doors and ask random women if they were raped thirty years earlier and later on when he is chasing the psychotic Elliði (Theódór Júlíusson) and the tables are suddenly turned when they both realise that were Sigurður Óli to actually catch up to him he would likely be beaten to bloody pulp.

I read one review that described ‘Jar City’ as a “haunting enigma” and that is a good two-word summing up of what is on offer here. It makes excellent use of the other-worldly Icelandic landscape and introduces little mundane moments that are strangely unsettling to the eye of the outsider, such as Erlendur eating a sheep’s head for his supper. This is not a feel-good movie, but at the end of it you feel good that films of this quality are still being made.

One minor point of criticism is that the sub-titles, which are displayed against the actual picture, are often hard to read. I had to stop the film (DVD) several times, scan back and put it on pause to read them.

‘Jar City’ has a 94% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes from 35 reviews.

‘Mýrin’ or ‘Tainted Blood’ is the third of eight novels featuring Detective Erlendur as its central character. It was first published in 2000.

Review posted 8 April 2009

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