A precocious new talent is revealed in the gritty, rather too self-consciously “cool” debut film of Niels Arden Oplev. “Portland” is violent, nihilistic and often repellent, and yet its bold visuals and unexpected elements of humor andromance make it riveting viewing. Young audiences may respond, but their parents probably won’t be so impressed, creating a tough sell on the arthouse circuit in many territories.
Oplev seems under the influence of Lars Von Trier, whose Zentropa Entertainments outfit produced. Pic is distinguished by a rich visual texture in which exteriors are apparently filmed on high-contrast, grainy black-and-white film stock, which has then been tinted a livid orange. Interior scenes are presented in normal full color, although whenever a view can be seen through a window, this, too, gets the grainy orange effect.
Perhaps influenced by Chris Marker’s seminal short film “La Jetee,” which just once broke its own style of using only still photographs, there’s one fleeting moment here, too, when an exterior scene is shown in full color — a moment when three principal characters are, briefly, happy.
The film’s protagonists are a bunch of antisocial thugs who deal in drugs. Janus comes out of prison and is met by his younger brother, Jakob, a refugee from a reform school; Janus immediately steals a car and heads for the Cafe Teuton where gang leader Lasse assigns him work and offers a place to stay — in the apartment occupied by Lasse’s sister, Eva.
This “work” involves intimidating the elderly and sick inhabitants of housing projects to order subscription drugs through the medical health service; these are then handed on to couriers from Lasse’s gang and sold on the streets. Janus and Jakob become couriers.
There’s not much more to the plot. Janus and Eva becomes lovers, but when she tells him she loves him, he viciously beats her up; this triggers a response from Lasse, whose goons give Janus an equally vicious beating. With the record straight again, Janus and Eva resume their relationship and eventually, in a bizarre sequence typical of Oplev’s humorous approach, celebrate a white wedding with all the trimmings, though both are noticeably scarred and bruised.
Young Jakob, meanwhile, after dallying with a couple of lively girls named Irene and Minna, who give him a lift in their car and who are dressed in cowgirl gear, becomes alienated from his brother and, after being sensitive and nervous for most of the film, starts acting tough.
As a director, Oplev shows he has talent: His mixture of moods works well, he gets strong performances from most cast members, and he pushes the narrative along at an urgent pace. His sense of humor is a major asset, not only in scenes like the one with Jakob and the cowgirls, but also in details — the pet lizard owned by one thug, for example, and some very flip dialogue.
But as a writer, he’s less successful; it’s surely not enough these days for Janus to blame his lifestyle on a lack of mother’s love (which he does) or to have characters utter corny lines like “It’s us against the world.” There’s also far too much unmotivated violence (Janus assaulting a shopping mall security guard is a totally unnecessary sequence) and a few cheap and obvious jokes at the expense of authority figures.
Music by Sons of Cain gives the film a soundtrack to boost marketing opportunities, and, on a technical level, everything about “Portland” is first-class. Best performance comes from Anders Wodskou Berthelsen as the pill-popping Janus.
The title remains unexplained; perhaps it’s a reference to the home town of Gus Van Sant, but it’s also a Danish brand name for cement.