Where many thrillers run hot, riling us up to share their heroes’ righteous fury, Hans Petter Moland’s chilly and intellectually aestheticized In Order of Disappearance is a revenge film on ice. The coldness springs from the setting of the wintery mountains of Norway, which are engulfed in snow that often blots out the skyline, rendering unnervingly white tapestries in which characters sometimes appear to be moving untethered through abstract space. The coldness also runs through the behavior of the characters, who’re largely gangsters and drug traffickers, and affirmed by the ash-gray sets that are populated with various absurd art objects, as well as by the blocking, which emphasizes the wideness of the segmented spaces, informing the frequent bloodletting with existential absurdity.
Moland is clearly inspired by the crime films of Joel and Ethan Coen, particularly Miller’s Crossing and Fargo. The comic tone and the use of snow as a signifier of oppression and loss come from the latter, while the thorny narrative, involving a thicket of betrayals and long submerged hostilities, recalls the dense plotting of the former. In Order of Disappearance evokes other associations as well. The villain, a crime lord called the Count (Pål Sverre Hagen), is eccentric and knowingly ludicrous in the tradition of the underworld characters played by Gary Oldman in the 1990s—a sociopath shown to be troubled by the banalities of everyday domestic life, such as an impending divorce and whether or not to feed his often ignored son sugary cereal for breakfast. Meanwhile, the hero, Nils Dickman (Stellan Skarsgård), is an aging, brooding avenger cut from the cloth of the late-career roles of Charles Bronson and Liam Neeson—a man of few words who serves as ideal fodder for arresting images of nihilistic aggression.
The film has been executed with a sense of formally stylish and thematically symmetric panache.
Yet Moland utilizes these tropes with a sense of personality that’s also his own. In Order of Disappearance has a distinctly Scandinavian matter-of-factness that resists the blowhard theatrics of most aging-white-avenger programmers. Cheeky devices, such as the listing of each newly murdered character’s name on the screen, inform Nils’s quest with a haunting sense of pointlessness. We empathize with Nils’s rage and sadness, as the Count killed his son for no cause, but we’re not primed to enjoy his systematic slaughter of the Count’s organization. Moland stages the killings curtly and fleetly, with an admirably disconcerting element of violation. Unconventional details linger with one on the rebound, such as Nils and a gangster enjoying a long, contextually awful laugh together as they lay against the blade of the hero’s snowplow, before Nils blows the guy’s head off with a shotgun. Or the resigned manner in which Nils places a rifle barrel in his mouth, about to leave the world behind before he discovers the truth of his son’s death.
Skarsgård and Hagen are superb, and they’re complemented late in the game by Bruno Ganz, who’s to this film what Albert Finney was to Miller’s Crossing: an actor casting the weight of his legend-hood over the proceedings, embodying seemingly ageless forces of rapidly eroding social control. Playing a Serbian gangster, Ganz invests his role with a stolid sense of purpose that ricochets off of Nils’s embitterment and the Count’s hot-blooded panic. They make for an amusing and resonant trio: three fathers honoring their sons in garish methods that continue to stoke the very waves of tragedy that set them off on their own respective paths of annihilation. Though formulaic at its center, In Order of Disappearance has been executed with a sense of formally stylish and thematically symmetric panache.