Anton Sigurdsson’s Cruelty might have been a typical Nordic Noir film, but besides its bleak subject matter, it is refreshingly artistic.
Unlike any other opening to a crime drama I have ever seen, Cruelty’s reveals the microscopic detail on bruised skin showing dishevelled hair like rivers meanwhile removing our view of the victim and instead focusing on the anatomy of a person. One can immediately tell that the level of attention to photography is perfectly suited to a gloomy film like this, in which two young sisters are found dead in the cold wilderness of Reykjavík, Iceland. The investigation of their murder is led by two detectives named Hildur and Faðir. Besides them, we also follow a young man named Andri, who has been employed in Reykjavík recently, and we can sense right away that something about him is not quite right. There is no need for dialogues, the visual storytelling gives us the clues that he may or may not have been involved in the murder case.
The acting in the film is somewhat varied in quality. While the actors playing the two detectives leave much to be desired in this department for most of the feature, since everytime you see them on screen, one’s mind tends to wonder instead of following the plot. It is not until the third act of the film that this changes and the actor playing Hildur starts to go through strong emotional reactions due to the severity of the case and connections to her own past with her brother.
But the actor that does make you pay close attention is the man playing Andri – the suspect the viewer is allowed to follow around. Without saying so much as a word, he conveys everything we should think about him, while at the same time keeping in touch with his character, making us wonder what it is he is hiding. He makes it seem like there might be something terrible underneath the surface, ready to jump out at any time. Then we see him take care of the woman he’s been seeing – gently tucking her into bed at night, never making any unwanted advances. But it is, despite its many moments of genius, very slowly paced to the point of expiration, instead of raising the tension it dissolves it.
If this film had to be defined by anything, it is by its silences. Any scene in the film that is completely silent carries more information or depth about the characters and their world than any of the ones with dialogue. Which may also say something about the lacklustre script, which remains uninspired but is saved by the stunning visuals, the directing and the greater efforts of some of the actors.
It seems that directing rather than writing is Sigurdsson’s finer skill, as one scene in particular still burns in my memory – that of Hildur noticing her brother’s jacket hanging in a closet, and her reaction to it is shown so that we inexplicably understand that something between her brother and her has damaged her cruelly – which also happens to relate to the film title.
The film is somewhat similar to David Fincher’s version of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It bathes the characters in a greenish glow to suggest mental illness or that the character themselves are sick and miserable in some other way. It also bears a strange resemblance to another American film, Prisoners directed by Denis Villeneuve. This is in no way a bad thing, but at times it is hard to find what defines the movie in terms of style since it borrows so heavily from American horror/crime thrillers.