Jar City juggles the clichés of police procedurals and conventions from Icelandic myth to suggestively modern effect, finds Tom Jennings
Hardboiled and Hardwired. Film review – Tom Jennings
Mobilising the distinctive features of Iceland’s insular history and comparatively recent breakneck modernisation, Baltasar Kormákur’s 101 Reykjavik (2000) cleverly spun indie cinema’s staple of aimless slackers from dysfunctional families adrift in trendy youth culture. Heavily indebted to Pedro Almodóvar’s subversions of social and sexual conformism in contemporary Spain, he has continued to mine the tragic farces of kinship in sundry genres – from [i]The Sea[/i ’s (2002) sins-of-the-patriarch saga to stock white-trash grifters in the over-Hollywoodised A Little Trip to Heaven (2005). Now, the debut’s counterpointing of harsh Icelandic geography and the long-suffering travails of its inhabitants returns with a vengeance – both literally and metaphorically – in another crime thriller scenario in Jar City, based on a novel by Arnaldur Indridasun. Here, however, while still brim-full of manipulative melodrama and mordant humour, there is also a recurring poignancy which transcends the director’s earlier comic misanthropy – evoking empathy for otherwise thoroughly unlikeable characters whose misery seems both self-inflicted and pre-ordained.
The film’s sense of stifling structural determination is enhanced by Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson’s alternately majestic aerial pans across the Arctic landscape (with dramatic choral score) and claustrophobic interior cinematography. We descend into this forbidding environment via a grotty urban basement with dour world-weary detective Erlendur (Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson) expressing disgust at a “typical Icelandic murder – messy and pointless”. Lonely lowlife lorry-driver Holberg’s skull was caved in with his own ashtray, but the sole crime-scene clues are a penchant for porn and a decades-old photo of the grave of a child – whose later exhumation shows her brain removed before burial. Meanwhile genetic database administrator Orn (Atli Rafn Sigurdarson) obsessively mourns his young daughter succumbing to the same rare brain condition. These threads dovetail as the investigation implicates Holberg’s old criminal muckers – but one (the country’s “most notorious maniac”) is now in prison and the other found hidden under Holberg’s floor having been killed years earlier. Suspicions of their past sexual violence then also evaporate once a search for rape victims yields only Orn’s mother disclosing hitherto concealed youthful indiscretions. Realising Orn has independently pieced together his real parentage and killed Holberg (as we see in flashback), Erlendur is too late to prevent his suicide which extinguishes the catastrophic bloodline.
The domestic box-office success of this entertaining and accomplished movie testifies to the strong resonance of thematic concerns which have wider, even universal, relevance. The obvious hook is the Icelandic DNA mapping project run by private company deCODE Genetics Inc, with the usual hype promising medical revelation via Big Pharma’s monopoly over life’s biological substrates – despite its empirical basis being as dangerously shaky as the governmental thirst for scientific population management supposedly necessitating exhaustive identity intrusion. But the title namechecks Reykjavik’s repository of the treasure troves of previous generations of pathologists – endless samples of pickled organs, etc – whose fleshy monstrosity now upgrades to sanitised digital simulacra. As Erlendur has it: “Tragedies, sorrows, and death, all carefully classified in computers. Family stories and stories of individuals. Stories about me and you. You keep the whole secret and can call it up whenever you want. A Jar City for the whole nation”. Whereas the novel was originally called Myrin (‘the marshes’ of Iceland’s lowland) – more sharply capturing the complacent edifices of our time built upon far murkier, unstable foundations; with the brave new hi-tech rhetoric merely a clinical corporate veneer on persistent older fictions which regiment racial purity, moral health and social conduct to suit the reproduction of hierarchy.
The point, of course, is that whatever significance is ascribed to the role of genetics, it’s what people do with such ideas that really matters. And the attitudes of those involved in the plodding investigation here revolve around a comparable jarring of inward- and backward-looking fatalistic conservatism against the demands of an uncomfortable present and uncertain future. So prevailing homespun wisdom about dark deeds misguidedly blames the dire products of ‘tainted blood’ on “incest, rape, or foreigners” – thus attributing to biological imperative various skeletons actually closeted by purely cultural prejudice. Meanwhile dialogue is peppered with the detectives’ banter concerning their own and the suspects’ personalities and tastes, with his assistants’ contrasting narcissisic yuppie pretensions and sympathetic no-nonsense womanly intelligence offsetting Erlendur’s authoritative macho. Yet his response to the wreckage of his private life transcends blind obedience to warrior stereotype – tending an injured thug he’s chucked down the stairs, and caring for the pregnant daughter he’d previously abandoned to promiscuous junkiehood. Ingrained laws – whether of the State or jungle – make humanitarian sense neither of the case at hand nor the routine redemptions of altruism, conviviality and love.
For that purpose, more open minds and hearts are required – precisely the potentials, as it happens, that decisive mutations in hominid evolution unleashed with the retention of infantile simian features. Neoteny – especially in brain morphology, and hence language and learning – relaxed fixed instinctual control allowing greater individual and collective adaptability and creativity. The rest is (human) history, with no programmed, predictable outcome – to the eternal dismay of control-freaks of all stripes. Ironic, then, to witness current regressions to the comforting delusions of innate determinism, as sociobiology – neoliberalism’s ideological handmaiden – fashions just-so fantasies of perfectly calculating psychopaths maximising profitable ‘fitness’. But not as organisms, peskily stubborn as we have proved in insisting that a better world is possible. No, instead we’re animated by swarms of sinister ‘selfish genes’, somehow orchestrating unbelievably intricate biochemical, behavioural, even conceptual patterns sidestepping social, cultural and political agency. And with this wholesale philosophical disavowal to be biotechnologically operationalised in the dissection and correction of chromosomes, you have to ask: Is this the apex of advanced civilised rationality, or proof positivist of the criminal insanity of capitalism?
Film review published in Freedom, Vol. 69, No. 20, November 2008.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see: