Stephen Arnell

The Nordic Noir thrillers worth watching

The Nordic Noir thrillers worth watching
Jake Gyllenhaal in The Guilty, Image: Netflix
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With the recent Netflix release of Jake Gyllenhaal’s nordic-inspired The Guilty, as the nights draw in, what better time for a smorgasbord of films from the land of the midnight sun?  The Guilty is a remake of the 2018 Danish film of the same name about a troubled 911 operator who attempts to come to the rescue of a distressed caller. 

Since the literary, TV and movie phenomenon of Nordic Noir first broke out from its Scandinavian confines in the 2000s, the genre has become an established part of UK culture, along with cosy lifestyle cousins hygge, lagom and lykke.

To an extent, Nordic Noir has become a victim of its success, with its familiar ingredients now drifting into cliché, as evidenced by the wholesale adoption of moody Nordic Noir conventions in UK crime dramas such as Marcella, Shetland, Hinterland, Annika, Keeping Faith and far too many others. There’s a good chance that the slow pacing, portentous dialogue, literal darkness, and angst of Nordic Noir influenced shows will seem to future generations as dated as episodes of Z-Cars are to us. Still, there are a handful of stand-out titles that will no doubt endure.

The popularity of the genre has brought with it an influx of actors from Scandinavia, the likes of Connie Nielsen, Joel Kinnaman, Mads Mikkelsen, Rebecca Ferguson, Alicia Vikander, Peter Stormare, Ulrich Thomsen, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, and the Skarsgård brood all familiar to UK audiences, by face, if not by name. Perfect English, Norse good looks (in the main) and initially lower salaries no doubt aided this expansion into Hollywood and beyond.

Back in 2015, BBC1 went as far as importing the great Stellan Skarsgård to play guilt-ridden British detective John River, haunted by the shade of his murdered partner DS Stevenson (the ubiquitous Nicola Walker) in the 6-part thriller River.

Here’s my selection of Nordic Noir motion pictures (both originals and English language versions) that are worth checking out.

In Order of Disappearance (2014)

Stellan Skarsgård stars in this satisfying revenge thriller that harks back to Charles Bronson’s better 1970s movies. Upstanding citizen and snow plow driver Nils Dickman (no laughing at the back) is on a quest for revenge when his son is mistakenly killed by a local drug gang. The entry of the Serbian mafia under Papa Popović (the late Bruno Ganz) further complicates matters.

Director Hans Petter Moland remade the picture as Cold Pursuit in 2019, relocating the action from Norway to Colorado. Liam Neeson takes the Skarsgård role, renamed as Nels Coxman. Very droll.

Contraband (2012)

Another enjoyable thick-eared thriller of the old school, Contraband stars a grimacing Mark Wahlberg as master smuggler Chris Farraday, drawn back into the life after his bone-headed brother-in-law Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) fails to deliver a consignment of drugs.

Plenty of twists and turns, amusing dialogue, and a strong cast (including Ben Foster, Giovanni Ribisi, Lukas Haas, Diego Luna, and J. K. Simmons.) make Contraband a cinematic trip worth taking.

Ribisi is especially good value as slimy bad guy Tim Briggs, likewise Foster as Wahlberg’s duplicitous buddy Sebastian.

Baltasar Kormákur directed the movie, a remake of his own Reykjavík-Rotterdam (2008), which was not bad, but lacked the widescreen appeal of Contraband’s New Orleans and Panamanian locations.

Headhunters (2011)

My favourite Nordic Noir movie Headhunters is a shining example of an excellently made thriller, with a complex plot, well-drawn characters, and a rich vein of pitch-black humour.

Adapted from Jo Nesbø’s 2008 novel, the movie concerns the plight of petite corporate headhunter Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) who moonlights as an art thief to fund the lavish lifestyle he believes his wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund) deserves.

Brown’s life takes a turn for the worse when he meets ex-Special Forces officer Clas Greve (Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who is after a prestige job with one of the recruiter’s clients.

Needless to say, all is not as it appears to be, resulting in Brown engaged in a prolonged battle of wits with Greve, which makes North-by-Northwest look like a day trip to Bognor in comparison.

In 2017 Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In, Tinker, Tailor) assembled an all-star cast (Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, J.K. Simmons, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Toby Jones, Val Kilmer, and Chloë Sevigny) for his version of another Nesbø novel, The Snowman. Unfortunately, the picture was a box office dud and slammed as one of the worst movies ever to be released. The director blamed a tight production schedule and lack of preparation for the release.

Jackpot (2011)

Jo Nesbø again, but this time a happier experience than The Snowman for both viewers and author in a black comedy thriller that successfully blends Elmore Leonard, Tarantino, and the Coen Brothers’ Fargo.

The sole survivor (Kyrre Hellum) of a bloody shoot-out in a seedy Norwegian strip club recounts his incredible story to an initially disbelieving detective (Henrik Mestad). The two lessons of Jackpot; never staff a plastic Christmas tree factory with ex-cons – and never join a lottery syndicate with them.

Easy Money (2010)

Daniel Espinosa (upcoming Marvel flick Morbius) helmed this hit crime drama, which proved popular enough to spawn two sequels (2012 & 2013) and the Netflix series Snabba Cash (2021).

A US remake with Zach Efron was also threatened, but that appears to have long since died the proverbial death.

Based on Swedish criminal defence lawyer and author Jens Lepidus’ Stockholm Noir trilogy, Easy Money follows the adventures of aspiring cocaine dealer JW (Joel Kinnaman), his Chilean associate Jorge and their struggle with Stockholm’s Serbian Mafia.

Although you hear stories of how easy life is in Scandinavian prisons (compared to most in the UK at least), none of the protagonists in the movie appear reconciled to ending up in one.

Clash of Egos (Sprængfarlig Bombe – Explosive Bomb) (2006) Netflix

Admittedly it’s the premise and the presence of lead actor Ulrich (Banshee) Thomsen that led me to watchSprængfarlig Bombe, rather than the execution.

Netflix describe the film thusly: ‘After seeing a terrible art-house movie with his kids, hot-tempered Tonny (Thomsen) tracks down the pretentious filmmaker to demand a refund.’

On that basis, I was all in for the movie, which had some funny moments, but was let down by a low budget and an overly broad script. Nikolaj Lie Kaas, who you may have seen in Sky’s Roman romp Britannia, plays Claus Volter, the conceited movie director who enrages the hair-trigger Tonny.

Exit (2006) Amazon Rent/Buy

As Jack Nicholson’s Will Randall says of himself in Mike Nichols’ Wolf (1994): ‘The worm has turned, and is now packing an Uzi’; these words could also apply to framed investment banker Thomas Skepphult (Mads Mikkelsen) in this formulaic but watchable Fugitive-style thriller.

The little-seen picture features Alexander Skarsgård as support; Exit attempted (and failed) to gain an international audience by using Mikkelsen’s then role as Hannibal and Skarsgård’s presence in True Blood as a promotional hook.

Mads Mikkelsen can currently be seen in new movies Another Round and Riders of Justice on Amazon Prime (rent or buy), both released this year.

Smilla's Sense of Snow (1997)

Worth noting as an early English language movie in the Nordic Noir genre, this Bille August (Pelle the Conqueror) adaptation of the Peter Høeg thriller looks good and boasts a great cast (including Gabriel Byrne, Tom Wilkinson, Julia Ormond, Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave, Tom Wilkinson, and Jim Broadbent), but proved a box office flop with so-so reviews.

The death of an Inuit boy in Copenhagen sparks a chain of events that lead to murder, deadly prehistoric Arctic worms (shades of Sky Atlantic’s Fortitude), and a mysterious energy producing meteorite in Greenland.

Insomnia (1997) IMDb Tv/Amazon Rent/Buy

Although Christopher Nolan’s big budget remake has its admirers, I prefer Erik Skjoldbjærg’s 1997 original, which to my mind benefited from an ambiguous ending and Stellan Skarsgård’s low key performance as compromised criminal investigator Jonas Engström.

This contrasted with Nolan’s Alaska-set version, which starred Al Pacino (in the Skarsgård role), Robin Williams and Hilary Swank.

Skjoldbjærg was generous about Nolan’s take on the material, commenting, 'I felt lucky that it's such a well-crafted, smart film and that it had a really good director handling it, because as a remake it doesn't hurt the original if it is well done.'

What both pictures managed to convey was the disconcerting effect that 24 hours of sunlight can have on human beings used to the usual rhythm of night and day.

Nightwatch (1994)

Another Nordic Noir where the director elected to remake his own original, Ole Bornedal’s Nightwatch was an early leading role for Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, as Martin Bork, a student working as a night watchman at a Copenhagen medical institute - which includes a morgue. Serial murders of women in the city lead to Martin becoming a suspect. 

The movie is a pretty good European take on a generic Hollywood-style thriller, elevating the picture to something more left-field. Nightwatch also stars Sofie Gråbølm, famed for playing Sarah Lund in The Killing. She also appeared in Sky Atlantic’s dire Nordic Noir/horror mashup Fortitude (2015-18), but the less said about that the better.

Ewan McGregor starred in the 1997 remake of Nightwatch, which was poorly received. The actor blamed disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein for its failure, citing 'constant reshoots, including the ending, and they took all the interesting stuff out, making it bland.'

Although geographically part of Scandinavia, the Finns are a very different people from the predominantly Norse nations of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.

So, if you fancy something a little different, why not try Aki Kaurismäki's quirky I Hired a Contract Killer (1990), an English language production set in London that starred Truffaut favourite Jean-Pierre Léaud (The 400 Blows).

Not exactly Nordic Noir, but very definitely a product of a similarly skewed sensibility.