Between Von Trier, Vinterberg, the Klown guys, Mads Brügger, Nicolas Winding Refn and probably someone else important that I’m forgetting, Denmark has been and is increasingly becoming known for producing ballsy filmmakers. I mean, it is the country that gave us Gayn*ggers from Outer Space, after all. In Northwest, director Michael Noer gives us a crime drama as unsentimental as anything you’d expect from his aforementioned countrymen, in a much more grounded, narratively streamlined package (some of my favorite kinds of packages). It’s a film that might be called more “conventional,” but only because it seems more concerned with telling a story than it is with creating Art or reinventing the cinematic language. It’s a tight, compelling gangster movie set in Copenhagen that maintains the intensity all the way through. Hey, sometimes you want a film to reinvent cinema, and other times you just want one to make your butthole pucker.
Gustav Djekjaer Giese plays Casper, a knockaround blonde skinhead of about 19 from the nordvest, which I take it is the poor part of Copenhagen. Think of your typical cinematic depiction of Southie, but with Arabs. Caspar starts off as a part-time burglar, fencing his stolen goods through a parking lot gangster named Jamal, who always seems to be screwing Casper over and letting his Arab thugs kick around Casper and his younger brother Andy (played by Giese’s actual brother, Oskar). Because of his sick burgling skillz, Casper eventually gets recruited by a gang of muscle-bound bikers from another neighborhood led by Bjørn (Roland Møller), who hire Casper to chauffeu their Russian (I think?) prostitutes and start up a fledgling coke business. Guys who order prostitutes also enjoy cocaine, turns out. Who knew?
The bikers, a group of universally burly Vikings, do an amazing job of projecting a simultaneous sense of fatherly protection and familial acceptance and menace, so that you sort of root for and are terrified of them at the same time. Casper starts making some real money and soon gets his little brother involved, and, through a combination of inevitability and youthful arrogance, the shit hits the fan faster than you can say “a møøse bit my sister.” It puts a whole new spin on “you can never go home again” (because the bikers might murder you).
The idea that a poor kid might get recruited into the underworld lifestyle by a surrogate family of criminals whose acceptance still feels good no matter how despicable they might be isn’t anything new, nor is the idea that your neighborhood connections can come back to haunt you, but the whole thing is so well executed and the details so specific to Copenhagen that it never feels trite. Casper is always in some dangerous situation where the wrong decision might kill him, and there are few moments where you’re not hanging on his every action. You live it with him inside the claustrophobic hand-held camera work and gritty, desaturated palette, usually with some kind of house beat thumping in the background, because Europeans love that crap more than Adidas gear and leaving their penises uncircumcised combined.
The biggest question I had was, why, when Casper started making so much money, didn’t he use it to go find himself his own apartment, and move out of the neighborhood that seemed to be the source of all his problems? Is there a housing shortage in Copenhagen (serious question)? If you’ve got enough cash to buy yourself Rolex watches and fancy vacations and dinners, it seems like you’d have enough to spare to move out of your mom’s pad. I’d rather not spoon my little brother every night than have a shiny watch, but maybe that’s just me. I’m an only child, so I’ve never experience the joy of a biological bro cuddle.
Northwest is so well made that there isn’t much to criticize about what’s there, only a little about what isn’t. Casper is sympathetic and believable, but maybe not as interesting as he could be. He loves his mom, his sister, his brother, and girlfriend, but what else? Is he into scat play, a premature ejaculator? He could be a little twisted, couldn’t he? He is Danish, after all. What makes this guy tick? Northwest gives us just enough characterization to maintain the intensity, but a little bit more would’ve given it some more personality. A hot squirt of humor every now and again wouldn’t have been a bad thing.
After coming to a beautiful crescendo of consequences, the film ends right at its climactic moment, with a beautiful lingering shot. The shot itself is beautiful, but from a story standpoint, it feels a tad like a narrative copout. There are more ways to not do the expected thing than just to pointedly not do the expected thing. Northwest‘s solution seems a bit reactionary. Hell of an entertaining movie though.