That the second iteration of True Grit has recently proved to be such a hit, even winning an Academy Award nomination as Best Picture, shows how the world of classic Hollywood somehow manages to live on in spite of all the formidable cultural forces now arrayed against it. Where in our culture today, except in the movies, is it any longer possible to present without irony a straightforward quest for revenge as something like what it was in the Hobbesian state of nature of Old Hollywood: that is, not only permissible but compulsory. True, the postmodern idiom in which today’s movies are couched has done much to rob such a revenge saga of its moral force and justification. As Tony Soprano says to his son A.J. about The Godfather, “Jesus Christ, A.J.…It’s a movie!” But if the culture draws back from the primitive grandeur of the theme, the movie itself doesn’t.
To me, that’s something to cheer about, because the pseudo-profundities of New or Revisionist Hollywood — which tends to produce movies like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) or Mystic River (2003) that are tedious moralizing tracts against revenge — have never had much appeal. It’s so easy for film-makers with an ambition to be seen as “deep” or “thoughtful” to stack the deck against revenge seekers by making their would-be victims into pathetic and pitiable creatures who often (as in Mystic River) aren’t even guilty of the deeds for which they are being called on to pay the ultimate price. This is what Hans Petter Moland is doing, too, in the Norwegian movie A Somewhat Gentle Man (En ganske snill mann), though with rather more subtlety and a lot more humor than usual.
Stellan Skarsgård (Breaking the Waves, Pirates of the Caribbean) plays Ulrik, a hulking, taciturn auto mechanic who has just been released from prison after doing 12 years for the murder of his wife’s lover. Before being sent away, he had worked as a tough-guy enforcer for Rune Jensen (Bjørn Floberg), a gangster who ran a stolen-car ring and who now welcomes him back with a job and a place to live — and the expectation that he will be as eager as Rune himself is to take his revenge on the “little snitch” Kenny (Henrik Mestad) who turns out to be the brother of the man Ulrik murdered and whose testimony had sent him up the river. Ulrik’s massive passivity makes him naturally fall in at first with the revenge plot that Rune begins to organize against Kenny, but we find ourselves turning our attention instead to the job and the place to live. The former is as a mechanic working for a bizarrely philosophical garage owner named Sven (Bjørn Sundquist). “Summer tires, winter tires. The world must keep turning, that’s how I see it,” says Sven. The latter is a room hardly to be distinguished from the prison cell Ulrik has just left in the home of Rune’s sister, Karen Margrethe (Jorunn Kjellsby), who is also Sven’s ex-wife.
Ulrik’s involvement with these two remarkable characters plays out like a comedy. Or, rather, like a peculiarly Nordic tragi-comedy whose tragic dimension is represented by Rune and his revenge plot. They are like the gun which, if casually introduced in the first act of a play, Chekhov said had to be fired by the end of it. This is known in the trade as the rule of Chekhov’s gun, and there may be an allusion to this in the comic scene when Ulrik and Rune and the latter’s not entirely sycophantic henchman Rolf (Gard B. Eidsvold) go to buy a gun from a Lappish arms dealer and his dwarf assistant — just as there may also be an allusion to South Park in the fact that the name of the man the gun is to be used on (or not) is Kenny.
The other players in this comedy include Sven’s receptionist Merete (Jannike Kruse) and her violently abusive ex-husband, Kristian (Jon Øigarden), Ulrik’s ex-wife Wenche (Kjersti Holmen) and his now-grown son Geir (Jan Gunnar Røise) who has been instructed by Wenche to regard his father as dead, and Geir’s fiancée Silje (Julia Bache-Wiig), who is expecting a child. Geir is not unwilling to get to know his father again, but Silje is opposed to welcoming a murderer into her home. “Her family doesn’t do stuff like that,” Geir tells Ulrik apologetically. “They have a nursery — you know, with plants? They have principles.” The best bits of the movie have to do with the desperately lonely and unattractive Karen Margrethe’s seduction of Ulrik, which I won’t spoil by describing in detail, but it, together with the birth of Ulrik’s grandson, casts an interesting light back on the revenge plot, once it is finally put into motion. Not surprisingly, when at length he appears, Kenny turns out to be someone we don’t particularly want to see dead while Rune is more and more someone we do.
There is some mild interest for the moralist in the fact that, as opposed to revenge as the movie is, it is not opposed to murder if the victim is unpleasant enough. Call me a pedant, but I find this a logically inconsistent point of view. Movies like life are overwhelmingly biased to the present and the way we see the people in front of us, which makes it easy enough to take your audience along with you if you make the prospective victim of revenge merely pitiable and the man who insists on revenge a much nastier customer. But in the end the film has no answer to the case for revenge, which is impeccably put by Rune, unpleasant though he is. “No man is stronger than his people,” says Rune. “If my people are weak, then I look weak.” I guess Hans Petter Moland finds this way of looking at the matter self-discrediting. I do not.