Jar City

Iceland has, for a long time, been on the list of places I’d like to visit.  Reykjavik, with its pretty little brightly coloured buildings, always looks such a jolly little place in the brochures.  Having watched ‘Jar City’, a noir thriller set there, now I’m not so sure.

It looks a bleak place, of uninspiring architecture, grey skies and scruffy, miserable people.  Arriving at the crime scene one policeman says to another ‘It’s typical Icelandic murder; messy and pointless.’  And it is all rather messy: I really believed the stench from a rotting corpse, and the unpleasant muddiness of exhumation from both graveyards and beneath floors.

Part of the current blooming of ‘Scandinavian noir’ the chief investigator has a thick patterned jumper, a dysfunctional relationship with his possibly drug addicted daughter, and a fondness for boiled sheeps head which he buys as his regular order from a drive through takeaway and eats, eye first, while reading out loud from a prayer book.

At the same time there is a parallel story of the young man, devastated at the death of his daughter, seeking answers as to why she inherited a genetic brain disorder.  He appears to work in a high tech lab which is building a genetic profile of the whole nation – something which I have since read is based on a real, but controversial project in Iceland, a country with a small and uniquely isolated community.

The investigation of the murder of a petty crook takes the team of rumpled cops back to the disappearance of a hoodlum and a possible rape 30 years before when they find a photograph of the cross on a grave in a remote wind swept graveyard.

The tension in the film is built on how the story of the investigation of the murder and its links to the past interweaves with that of the bereaved young father.  At first it seems that the link is only a thematic one, that of the loss of a very young child, but gradually greater connections are revealed.

There were moments in the first half of the film when I wasn’t sure that I understood what was going on, but stayed with it for the colour bleached images and the melancholy score.  It was only towards the denouement that I properly appreciated that the relative time frames, the source of some of my puzzlement,  had been distorted, and that I had been in the hands of a director who had confused me on purpose, but who then revealed the resolution cleverly and subtly.

If you like your heroics understated to the point of invisibility, and your movies devoid of gloss, try it.

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