The northwest of Copenhagen can’t compete in the danger sweepstakes with northeast Detroit, but its influence as a breeding ground for criminality forms a significant element in Michael Noer’s accomplished if unoriginal sophomore feature, “Northwest.” In the end though, it’s less about environment than personality, as a teen’s growing attraction to a life of crime conflicts with his attempts to block his younger brother from the same path. As a theme, it’s older than Warner Bros.’ 1930s gangster pics, though Noer has a satisfyingly neorealist feel for milieu and character. The Euro arthouse scene is this film’s true direction.
Like Noer’s debut prison drama “R,” his second film deals with fitting in and finding a place where one can feel respected. Casper (Gustav Dyekjaer Giese), 18, burgles homes and fences the goods to Jamal (Dulfi Al-Jaburi, also in “R”). Brother Andy (real-life sibling Oscar Dyekjaer Giese) would rather be hanging with Casper than going to school, but their single mom (Lene Marie Christensen in an underdeveloped role) made an agreement with her eldest to keep Andy off the streets; besides, Casper is naturally protective of his brother and young sis Freya (Annemieke Bredahl Peppink).
When midlevel gangster Bjorn (Roland Moller) asks Casper to get him some big ticket items, the young man sees it as an opportunity for advancement, away from Jamal’s control. Bjorn likes Casper’s sense of responsibility and his honor-among-thieves mentality, and allows him entree into his world of drugs and prostitution. However, Jamal isn’t willing to let one of his team think they’re a free agent, and a turf war ensues, with Casper in the middle.
The story, co-written with Rasmus Heisterberg (“A Royal Affair”), feels like many other tales of teens from the wrong side of the tracks getting in over their heads, and some of the drug scenes (testosterone-charged men hopped up on coke, partying with happy East European hookers) could be lifted from dozens of similarly themed pics. Yet despite the sense of deja vu, “Northwest” offers a compelling portrait of a young man whose moral compass is skewed but not broken.
The pic manages this trick thanks to Noer’s documentarian eye and respect for character, bringing a Dardennes-like sensitivity to working-class teenage male anxiety. Casper’s protectiveness of his family — there’s a nice scene where he treats them to a day-spa visit — comes at least in part from being the male head of the house, wanting to take responsibility for their well-being. For him, stealing is a job with its own rules, and he gets a charge out of doing it, but that doesn’t mean he’s committing his kin to the task. Andy’s take on things, however, is another matter; he’s less mature and not so bright, a kind of decadent version of his more sensible brother.
The Dyekjaer Giese siblings, both non-pros, are ideally cast, bringing a cool but by no means shallow honesty to their roles. Noer spent considerable time getting to know the neighborhood and its stories, and depicts the dynamics of the place, with its hierarchies and racial tensions, with a gritty familiarity assisted immeasurably by the nervous energy behind the lensing of d.p. Magnus Nordenhof Jonck (“A Hijacking,” “R”).