In this twisted thriller, a serial killer is on the loose and it’s up to Detective Erlunder to piece together a puzzle that involves grizzly murder and organ theft. The picture of Iceland that emerges in Baltasar Kormákur’s “Jar City” is vivid and powerful but not something the country’s tourist board would be likely to endorse. The landscape has its austere poetry to be sure — mountains framing the apartment blocks of Reykjavik, spits of volcanic rock jutting into a churning sea — but a fog of damp unhappiness seems to pervade every face and conversation. And yet by the end of this film, based on a popular mystery novel by Arnaldur Indridason, it is hard not to feel a certain affection for the place. Partly this is because Mr. Kormákur’s fondness for Iceland and its stoical, surname-free people is evident from start to finish.
And yet by the end of this film, based on a popular mystery novel by Arnaldur Indridason, it is hard not to feel a certain affection for the place. Partly this is because Mr. Kormákur’s fondness for Iceland and its stoical, surname-free people is evident from start to finish. His hero, in particular, a homicide detective named Erlendur (Ingvar E. Sigurdsson), takes on the features of a national paragon. He enjoys traditional Icelandic cuisine — “The usual?” a takeout server asks him; “Yes, I’ll have a sheep’s head” is the reply — and carries himself with a weary dignity that makes most of Ingmar Bergman’s characters seem frivolous by comparison.
Not that Erlendur, a tall chain smoker whose salt-and-pepper beard matches his wool snowflake-pattern sweater, is without emotion or a sense of humor. He aches at the knowledge that his daughter, Eva, has stumbled into drug addiction and sexual promiscuity. He teases the most feared criminal in Iceland, sarcastically comparing the man, who is locked in an isolation cell, to Nelson Mandela. Stepping over the body of a homicide victim, Erlendur remarks that the crime is “a typical Icelandic murder, messy and pointless.”
“Jar City,” though, turns out to be intricate and pointed, conjuring a haunting, satisfying puzzle out of violence and chaos. The murder, of an old man named Holberg, opens up a nest of older crimes and brooding secrets. Erlendur finds himself investigating a possible rape from 30 years before and unraveling a tangled history of police corruption and petty brutality. What it all has to do with Holberg is no more clear to the audience than it is to the detective. But Erlendur’s combination of bluntness and analytical acumen informs Mr. Kormákur’s storytelling technique, making “Jar City” an unusually forceful and thought-provoking thriller.
The main enigma, from the audience’s point of view, involves the connection between Holberg’s killing and the death, from a rare genetic disease, of a girl in a Reykjavik hospital. In resolving this mystery the film explores the intimate, slightly sinister relations among citizens of a homogeneous, isolated nation. Police and criminals, strangers and enemies all address one another by their first names and seem to swing abruptly from candor to hostility and suspicion.
The emotions at the heart of this philosophical detective story are dark and tangled, like the grisly surprises that seem to be buried under every floorboard. “Jar City” is chilly and cerebral but also morbidly and powerfully alive to grossness and physicality. At home one evening Erlendur blithely tears into his customary sheep’s head with his fingers, munching an eyeball while he reviews a case file. It’s at once grotesque, sensual and strangely tender, all words that might equally describe this strange and absorbing movie.
Directed by Baltasar Kormákur; written (in Icelandic, with English subtitles) by Mr. Kormákur, based on the novel “Mýrin” (“Tainted Blood”) by Arnaldur Indridason; director of photography, Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson; edited by Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir; music by Mugison; released by IFC Films. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes.
WITH: Ingvar E. Sigurdsson (Inspector Erlendur), Atli Rafn Sigurdarson (Örn) and Elma Lisa Gunnarsdóttir (Gunnur).