At times a black comedy, at other times relatively humorless, low-budget Finnish movie “Euthanizer” finds the titular misanthrope — an executioner of unwanted pets in a bleak rural hamlet — eventually driven to perform the same favor for their unlovable owners. It’s a theme animal rights activists might favor: Practically every character is an argument for mercy killing in this bilious tale, which holds attention despite its somewhat rough-hewn assembly. Commercial prospects are slender, but resourcefulness and an offbeat perspective mark debuting feature writer-director Teemu Nikki (who also edits here) as a talent to watch.

Veijo (Matti Onnismaa) is a crank disliked even by the local loafers his own age. No wonder: Not only is the 50-ish grump aggressively antisocial (he’s the kind of loner who’ll stop to tell you why you’re not worth his time), but he serves a creepy if tolerated community function by euthanizing old, ill or simply rejected pets. This he does by either shooting them in the woods (dogs), or gassing them in an old car rigged up for just that purposes (cats, et al.). It’s grisly work, but he charges a lot less than the local veterinary agencies.

Though he clearly prefers animals to fellow humans, Veijo doesn’t have a pet of his own. Nonetheless, one canine and two people push their way into his life. The dog is a disobedient mutt whom hapless garage employee Petri (Jari Virman) brings over to be snuffed. Petri is a pathetic lout, floundering in marriage, parenting and everything else, including his ongoing bid for acceptance from a vaguely nationalist gang whose members mostly bully and ridicule him. The dog is just one more burden to Petri, but to Veijo — whom the script hints is sort of a critter whisperer, able to glean their thoughts and experiences with near-supernatural precision — it’s a life more deserving of a second chance than its owner’s.

The other two-legged being who invades Veijo’s space is Lotta (Hannamaija Nikander), a nurse at the local hospital where his elderly father lies dying. She assumes at first that the elder man’s suffering pains his son, when in fact Veijo has good reason to hope dad suffers as much as possible. Regardless, Lotta is strangely attracted to Veijo’s dark, prickly personality. She insistently pursues involvement, and in fact proves to have kinkier tastes than the village weirdo is fully prepared for.

Even the unexpected possibility of love doesn’t much soften Veijo, however. His misanthropy manifests itself in increasingly violent ways. Soon he and Petri are on a collision course, and it’s clear there will be casualties — potentially a lot of them.

Director Nikki grew up on a pig farm, so his portrait of rural life may be unkind, but it probably isn’t unfair. The script’s more grotesque aspects integrate well enough into a portrait of everyday life among the least-reputable citizens of a grime-flavored community (nearly everyone here is a man who works or hangs around some kind of auto-parts operation), while the film’s grungy aesthetic likewise keeps the bizarre story feeling at least somewhat grounded. Performances inhabit various points between cartoonishness and realism, with Virman particularly good imbuing Petri with a sense of pathos despite the character having few if any other redeeming qualities.

Toronto Film Review: ‘Euthanizer’

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema), Sept. 7, 2017. Running time: 83 MIN. (Original title: "Armomurhaaja.")

  • Production: (Finland) An It's Alive Films production. (International sales: Wide, Paris.) Producers: Jani Poso, Teemu Nikki.
  • Crew: Director, writer, editor: Teemu Nikki. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Sari Aaltonen. Music: Timo Kaukolampi, Tuomo Puranen.
  • With: Matti Onnismaa, Jari Virman, Hannamaija Nikander, Heikki Nousiainen, Jouko Puolanto, Pihla Penttinen, Ilari Johansson, Olli Rahkonen, Rami Rusinen, Santtu Karvonen.