Law of the Land marks the feature-length debut of Jussi Hiltunen, an up-and-coming director who is sure to make a lasting impression on the international film scene. Taking the helm here as both writer and director, Hiltunen has created an impressive, arresting, and engrossing contemporary Western that explores fascinating questions of national and individual identities in places where the boundaries between law and lawlessness are blurred.
Law of the Land opens to a haunting voice-over from its protagonist, Lasse, who contemplates his past sins and failures as a father. In concert with this solemn confession, Lasse’s son Jakko – an ex-convict who served a sentence for murder – and his group of friends make their way into a cosy bar in a small Lapland border town. Jakko’s arrival means trouble, and it quickly sparks an international manhunt. Meanwhile, Jakko becomes entangled in a controversy with his half-brother Errki, and tension mounts as Lasse, who has recently been relieved of his duties as the village’s law enforcement officer, must work to keep his sons from killing one another.
With Law of the Land, Jussi Hiltunen has established himself as an immensely capable writer and director. He has a unique ability to capture both the vast, ethereal beauty of the Finnish landscape, as well as the most subdued, fleeting facial expressions in intimate closeups; and his dialogue is smart and crisp, showcasing his deft ability to craft a script that is remarkably economic in its pacing, even as it never asks its audience to turn off their brains. And while Hiltunen is, indeed, seemingly more interested in inviting his viewers to ruminate on the emotional complexities of his characters than in shocking them with narrative twists and turns, it is precisely this commitment to subtle characterization that causes our pulse to pound as the film builds to its inevitable final confrontation. The kind of nuanced writing and steady-handed direction on display in Law of the Land is typically indicative of a much more mature artist, and thus Hiltunen has laid a solid foundation for his future endeavours.
The film also boasts some very impressive performances from its cast. Veteran actor Ville Virtanen perfectly embodies the steely, iron-willed determination of Lasse, the world-weary ex-police officer plagued by his past. He speaks with his facial expressions as much as his voice—especially as his character begins to soften as he slowly comes to accept responsibility for his failures as a father. Moreover, Antti Holma and Mikko Neuvonen turn in solid performances as Lasse’s sons—Jakko and Errki, respectively. Holma’s piercing stare and furrowed brow effect a palpable tension, while Neuvonen’s pensive visage gives life to Errki’s repressed desire to be loved and accepted by his father.
Perhaps what is most intriguing about Law of the Land, however, is the way it interacts with genre conventions. It is, first and foremost, a Finnish Western that draws much inspiration from its American predecessors.
A gruff sheriff faces off with an old foe in a dusty and deserted street; a band of cowboys sets out to rescue a young (typically female) child who was captured by Native Americans; an affable vigilante chases down a despised criminal in the name of justice: The typical American Western film utilizes these common plot devices to rectify and affirm traditional, conservative values. Additionally, such films traditionally forgo a nuanced depiction of cultural, social, and political issues in favour of a staunchly nationalistic stance. What is remarkably interesting about Law of the Land, therefore, is that Hiltunen appropriates these genre conventions and transplants them into a distinctly Nordic milieu.
The Lapland setting of Law of the Land, for example, is perfectly suited to highlight issues of territory and liminality that pervade American Westerns. While the majority of the film takes place inside and around a small village near the Swedish border, Hiltunen seasons his narrative with his nature shots—helicopter photography that is Remington-esque in its ability to capture the sheer magnitude and ferocity of the frozen tundra. In turn, this juxtaposition between civilisation and wilderness serves to help the viewer understand the protagonist Lasse, who essentially has a symbolic relationship to the landscape. In many ways, Lasse is a liminal character who lives somewhere in margins of society, somewhere in between the domestic and the wild. He is a former hitman, ex-husband, ex-police officer, absentee father (a list of traits that would ostensibly place him in an antagonistic relationship to the audience), yet he is also the character with whom we are most closely made to sympathise and identify. Neither fully outlaw nor wholly criminal, Lasse is both literally and psychologically a laminal identity, a character in flux.
In addition, the film plays off of Western tropes and themes of border and national identity in interesting ways. One of the major subplots of Law of the Land deals with a group of Swedish authorities and bounty hunters who make their way into Finland to find and kill Jakko. This again brings attention to in-betweenness of Lasse, who must work outside the official section and confines of the law and cross national borders in order to save his sons. In like manner, the film’s climax brings the film’s thematic conceit into sharp focus, as multiple parties break international law in order to uphold the unwritten and unspoken law of the land.
In the end, Law of the Land does have quite a bit to say about fatherhood, fatherlessness, family, and revenge, but these thematic considerations and subtexts are inextricably linked to the film’s interaction with the genre conventions in which it is grounded as a contemporary Western. The film also opens itself up to a multiplicity of interpretations, ranging from political, economic, and feminist readings. It is no doubt a film that rewards multiple viewings – one that is uniquely situated to address issues of fluid and shifting identities in a harsh and unforgiving environment. And with the recent international box office success of several contemporary Westerns, including the Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water (2016), it is difficult to imagine a future filmic landscape in which Hiltunen’s remarkable debut effort fails to find a receptive and eager audience.