Jar City, Baltasar Kormákur’s tight little thriller based on the Scandinavian crime writers’ Glass Key Award-winning novel Mýrin by fellow Icelander Arnaldur Indriðason, takes the familiar crime procedural and injects it with a specific (Arctic) sensibility, much in the way of Erik Skjoldbjærg’s Insomnia before it was hijacked by Hollywood, Christopher Nolan at the helm. Kormákur, best known for his adrift if crowd-pleasing Icelandic slacker film 101 Reykjavik, benefits greatly from the strong foundation and narrative focus of a good book. With confidence in his compelling story—or rather, “stories”, since the film breezes along on two parallel threads—the director seems better able to concentrate on the details that make a film believable, from the eerie (lack of) northern light, which envelops everything in a deathly bluish glow, to the hardships of being a vegetarian in Iceland (if you are and Reykjavik is in your travel plans bring along a lot of protein bars—trust me).
But the parts that comprise Jar City add up to a sum much larger than your typical indie flick. For this is not just a fictional story about a couple who lose their four-year-old girl to a brain tumor, nor just a tale about the search for a murderer and his motive, but an intriguing blend of the two, overlaid by a Big Brother that takes the form of the nonfiction, controversial deCODE Genetics Inc., a company specializing in genetic research that, several years ago, received access to all medical files in the Icelandic government’s database. (Because the Icelandic population is relatively small and has been isolated for centuries, it makes for the perfect test group.) Invasion of privacy or scientific necessity? As a government stand-in character argues near the beginning of the film, information isn’t “personal” since it’s been passed on for generations. Rather, it belongs to society. But does society have a right to know about every disease, even those that can’t be cured?
This is the moral center that grounds Jar City even as it runs through its crime thriller paces. The opening establishes an ecclesiastical tone: we follow a dying girl, bathed in gorgeous bluish light, from her bedside to the cold slab on which her soon dead body is placed. An overhead shot (as if from heaven) frames her small form as she’s readied for burial, dressed in pure virgin white and laid to rest. Then the aftermath of a homicide: an elderly man in a pool of blood is discovered by a couple of neighborhood boys—the scene is later described as “A typical Icelandic murder. Messy and pointless. And with no attempt to conceal the evidence.” This is a harsh land, frozen and barren, unforgiving. Only the strongest survive. Perhaps it is the sense of power through knowledge that pushed the Icelandic government to hand over sensitive material to a private firm.
It is precisely this hope that propels Örn (Atli Rafn Sigurðsson), the grieving father of the deceased girl, to apply for a job with deCODE. It is this same search for knowledge, for a deeper understanding of humanity, that thrusts Inspector Erlendur (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) into his obsessive quest to discover how his murder victim and a photo of a headstone of another deceased four-year-old named Aude (who died in 1974 of a brain tumor) are linked. Throw Erlendur’s pregnant junkie daughter Eva into the mix and the moral implications (filtered through that natural, strange Scandinavian light) truly get messy. “There’s nothing like losing a child,” a woman tells the inspector, explaining why Aude’s mother Kolbrun committed suicide, and though the camera cuts to the couple that just lost their child, the fact that Erlendur also has lost his daughter (to drugs) still lingers in our heads.
Which isn’t to say grief, not to mention the breathtaking shots of no-man’s land and the restless sea, overwhelm anyone’s sense of humor. On the contrary, one must have an unbreakable funny bone to live in a place of nonstop darkness in winter and nonstop daylight in summer. When Detective Elínborg (Ólafía Hrönn Jónsdóttir) inquires about Aude’s paternity, the government clerk deadpans that she has no information, which generally means “incest, rape—or a foreigner.” During a chase scene, scored with robust operatic music, a suspect suddenly turns on his pursuer when it dawns on him that there won’t be any movie shootout. (Do Icelandic cops even carry guns?) And then there’s the running gag about Erlendur’s “pussy” partner Sigurður Óli (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) who can’t stand Erlendur’s chain-smoking and asks “Got anything vegetarian?” at a restaurant, only to be shot down with “No guacamole bullshit here, buddy.” Harsh. (In addition, there’s a fantastic sequence in which Sigurður Óli has to go door-to-door asking grannies if they’d been raped thirty years ago. “No thank you,” one nearly deaf old lady responds sweetly.) With delightful dialogue like this and understated, technically precise acting by a great ensemble cast you can forgive Kormákur his few missteps, like a tendency towards informational exposition and sometime cliché (Eva’s drug den is, well, straight out of Sundance).
In fact, Jar City is so perfectly paced, taut and engrossing that you barely notice when the two stories seamlessly intertwine—at a sickly, yellow-lit, sci-fi spooky place called Jar City, the final resting place for the brains of the deceased. And this is also where the script becomes deftly, tightly twisted, with seemingly innocuous threads intricately woven through in unanticipated ways. Jar City is anything but simplistic. The murderer—and, more importantly, his motive—is well hidden until the end. Suffice to say that unauthorized access to the genetic database plays a crucial role (a real-life situation thus provides for great narrative social commentary). This is a film in which fictional characters live in a relevant, nonfiction world with both unanswerable questions and unforeseen consequences. Erlendur’s daughter fights to stay clean but is never fully redeemed. “Why do we have eyes?” Örn recalls his dying daughter asking him. To which he replied, “To see with.” “No,” the daughter corrected. “To cry with.” Jar City is a movie that smartly values ambiguity over happy endings, preferring to laugh through the tears.