From its double-digit body count to the Dirty Harry-like intensity with which its protagonist (Stellan Skarsgard) goes about avenging his son’s murder, “In Order of Disappearance” feels more like an American crime thriller than virtually anything Scandinavia has produced before. Slick, clever and powered by the conviction that sooner or later justice will be served, Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland’s darkly comedic picture — his fourth collaboration with Skarsgard — could certainly pass for a Hollywood studio release in all technical respects, and if only the dialogue were in English, “Disappearance” might be looking at some serious domestic box office. Pic should still do nicely for the right specialty label.
Nils Dickman (Skarsgard) doesn’t get worked up about much in life. An even-keeled Swede living in an iced-over Norwegian backwater, he dutifully spends his days clearing the roads with his giant yellow snowplow — which, incidentally, turns out to be one of the world’s most cinematic professions, sending huge sheets of white powder arching high into the air as it powers through the frozen landscape. Nils’ job is also the very picture of futility: a thankless task in which nature always has the upper hand, as echoed by the pic’s beautifully fatalistic electric-guitar score.
At any rate, Nils is the last person one would imagine getting mixed up in a massive drug war, but that decision is wrested out of his hands when some low-ranking hoods decide to snuff his only son, Ingvar, rigging the death to look like an overdose. Nils is unconvinced by the police report, but doesn’t know what to do about it, going so far as to wrap his lips around the barrel of a loaded rifle when he suddenly receives proof that the young man was murdered — proof that turns this mild-mannered civil servant into a Charles Bronson-style score-settler.
Having very nearly taken his own life, Nils now has nothing to lose, making him far more dangerous than the lunatic criminals he’s up against. It’s an incredibly satisfying role in which to encounter Skarsgard, who fashions himself as the human equivalent of his unstoppable snowplow, confronting even the most seemingly insurmountable obstacles head-on. With each casualty, the film solemnly presents a black screen etched with the poor fella’s name — a gesture that becomes increasingly comedic as the bodies pile up, precious few of them innocent.
Meanwhile, screenwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson could have invented any sort of lunatic to play the crime boss responsible for ordering Ingvar’s death, but settles for a ponytailed dandy known as “the Count” (Pal Sverre Hagen, looking like a Scandi version of Richard E. Grant). The Count is a second-generation mobster, having inherited both the business and its pastry-making cover organization from his dad, and one detects a certain bratty impetuousness any time trouble arises.
The script is constantly undermining the Count’s authority, whether it involves the disappearance of his henchmen or an ongoing skirmish with his ex-wife (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen) over custody of their son. He’s little more than an overgrown child himself, and though he may be ruthless, he’s no match for either Nils’ blue-collar efficiency or the rival gang of Serbians he unwittingly upsets after misreading the situation and sending them an unnecessary “message.” They’re overseen by a soft-spoken godfather sort everyone calls “Papa” (Bruno Ganz, looking downright huggable as the film’s least forgiving figure).
Schemes like this have a way of spiraling out of the characters’ control, but Moland and Aakeson maintain a firm grasp on the pacing, progressively building both carnage and suspense as the situation escalates toward a Mexican standoff of which even Sam Peckinpah would be proud. Whereas the film previously managed to tick off the names of its victims in order of their disappearance, it must now resort to crowding multiple casualties onscreen at once. Audiences would do well not to grow too attached to any of the characters, for hardly any of them make it out of this highly uncharacteristic Norwegian affair alive.