A loose rejig of the same Leo Tolstoy short story that inspired Robert Bresson’s 1983 “L’argent,” Helsinki-set criss-crosser “Frozen Land” confirms helmer Aku Louhimies as a promising Nordic talent after his previous efforts, “Lovers & Leavers” and debut “Restless.” Although deeply suffused with Scandie miserabilism, pic is dappled by warm spots of humor that help sustain its over-long running time, as a forged banknote brings bad luck to various characters. The major prizewinner at Gothenburg, “Frozen” will likely thaw more fest programmers’ hearts, but its touch may be too icy for the gloom-averse.
Bookended by a funeral for a character whose identity is only revealed at the end, pic is divided into chapters with titles such as “Unemployment,” “The Axe” and “Snowpile.” First seg features Aki Kaurismaki regular Pertti Sveholm as a laid-off schoolteacher (also named Pertti) descending into alcoholism who drives his shiftless son Niko (Jasper Paakkonen) out of the house.
Using a computer owned by his hacker friend, Tuomas (Mikko Leppilampi), Niko prints a e500 ($640) banknote and passes it at a secondhand furniture store, where it ends up with mullet-haired dimwit Isto (regular Louhimies thesp Mikko Kouki). As in “L’argent,” Isto ends up getting arrested when he tries to use the note. But in subsequent chapters, “Frozen” diverges from both its Tolstoy source and its Bressonian cousin to venture into weirder, more nihilistic territory.
Soon dropping the banknote Macguffin, semi-improvised script works the pulleys of a daft string of coincidences. Interwoven are the fates of Niko, Isto and Tuomas along with sad-sack recovering alcoholic Teuvo (Sulevi Peltola, another Kaurismaki foot soldier, in magnificent form here); a depressed woman cop named Hannele (Matleena Kuusniemi); and her husband Antti (Petteri Summanen).
After a slow, clumsy start, pic comes into its own 30 minutes in, with Teuvo’s story. This climaxes with a brutal, booze-fueled murder in a hotel room, a sequence that turns deftly from black comedy into horror and back in a couple of shots. Film’s atmosphere of gritty, handheld naturalism, a little too influenced by Lars von Trier’s Dogme mechanics, is gussied up by having characters echoing lines of dialogue, such as “money is money” and the “the end is near,” across storylines.
What all this adds up to is more elusive. The cliche balm of the funeral speech at the beginning and end, plus various characters talking about chaos theory, suggest a belief in an orderly but ultimately cruel universe where no deed (bad or good) goes unpunished. Perfs by the ensemble cast span a range, with Kuusniemi and Summanen standouts as an unlucky couple.
Tech credits achieve good results on what looks like a minimal budget, with helmer Louhimies even managing to pull off a semi-exciting car chase in Helsinki’s streets. Editing favors lots of cutaways to small details, which add flavor but drag out the running time. Distribution prospects would be enhanced by carefully trimming 20 minutes.