The Sweden depicted in David Flamholc’s feverish dream of a crime thriller, “Lithium,” is far from the cliched image of a cool, mildly angst-ridden yet peaceful country, and closer to a society teetering on the edge of unchecked bloodshed. Craftily fusing genre leanings and stylish traits of such prime U.S. small-screen exports as “NYPD Blue” and “Homicide: Life on the Street” with the deliberately rough-and-ready filmmaking of Dogma ’95 (sans many of the more severe Danish dictates), the prolific 25-year-old Flamholc delivers in his third feature much of the excitement that such a marriage would suggest. Though plot’s genre conventions ultimately bring the pic down several notches from where it should have been, “Lithium” could net theatrical coin in upscale Euro and North American territories, given the proper push from gutsy distribs.
Compared with the recent “Summer of Sam” depicting a serial killer and his effect on city dwellers, “Lithium” is infinitely more satisfying and disturbing, as well as being a venturesome display of how low-budget filmmaking can deliver something grand. Pic was shot unconventionally on Kodak Super 16 reversal stock, then cross-processed to heighten the grainy texture and blown up to 2.35 widescreen; Flamholc has, if nothing else, made a pic that looks like no other. If his writing has a considerable way to go, his visual storytelling is already a paragon of young Nordic cinema responding to — and possibly setting — late-’90s trends. Scripter-helmer received the Hollywood Young Filmmaker Award at the Hollywood Film Festival.
In a purely psychedelic and hypnotic title sequence, “Lithium” instantly establishes a sense of dread, mystery and jittery hysteria set to a nervy montage of Stockholm life. The heroine, post-collegiate journalist Hanna (Agnieszka Koson), who’s interning at a tabloidish evening paper, is intro’d as a hyper in-line skater, doing stunts you shouldn’t try at home, and being an enjoyably pesky upstart who irritates editor Hasse (Yvonne Lombard).
Clueless cops have found three charred corpses in a large bonfire, which may or may not be linked to a pattern of women disappearing in the city; Hanna’s hunches are fueled by her identification with women her age being terrorized as well as a letter to the editor from a man who claims his g.f. has been missing for days.
Only later is it clear that the letter writer and curiously moody yet mild-mannered Dan (Fredrik Dolk) are the same man. Dan works in an employment agency by day and drives a taxi at night to pay the alimony due his ex-wife, Margareta (Marika Lagercrantz), and he’s immediately established as an awfully complex fellow, at once a shadowy loner and a dedicated man who’s berated by his boss for working too hard.
Hanna must contend with egomaniacal staff veteran Jens (Pierre Boutros) to get the story, and with obsessively jealous b.f. Martin (Johan Widerberg), a character whose crucial role in the plot emerges only after he has long worn out his welcome onscreen. Flamholc may intend Martin as a comic pest, repeatedly showing up when Hanna needs him least, but the results are unintentionally irritating. A more effectively comic element is mistreated blue-collar cop Henrik (Bjorn Granath) getting back at his superiors, even when Henrik’s sleuthing is misguided.
After impressively juggling myriad storylines for more than 80 minutes, Flamholc’s narrative begins to unravel as Hanna ventures closer to Dan’s increasingly disturbed world. While effectively hewing to genre strictures by hinting at horrible things yet revealing little about the killer and his deeds, script turns Hanna into a self-destructively stupid heroine who fails to give Martin the boot he deserves, is fired by the paper and then naively visits Dan at his home even after he has dropped clues that he is the bad guy.
Yet even during the plot’s major downturns, the filmmaking maintains unnerving tension, punctuated by athletic tonal shifts and some of the most horrific images of ritual killing this side of “The Silence of the Lambs.” Flamholc inserts gnawing suspicions at the finale that return pic to its opening mood of dread.
While some viewers will likely bail at the bloody third act or, more likely, at a camera style whose rocky, handheld panning makes even “The Blair Witch Project’s” excesses look mild, others will revel in a fresh restoration of what would otherwise seem like awfully stale goods. The cast maintains the kind of focused yet improvisational energy associated with such Dogma projects as “The Celebration,” with Koson’s perf as a hot-blooded, likable yet unwise young woman pushing the pic in its most — and least — productive directions. Dolk projects a neutrality that is ultimately astonishing, while Widerberg keeps his wits about him in an impossible role.
Production values on $ 500,000 pic are memorable, from Kenneth Cosimo’s jarring techno score to d.p. Marten Nilsson’s stunning images, which at extreme moments saturate the screen with ultra-grainy textures in a urine-like yellow.