Movie Review: A Somewhat Gentle Man (2010)
I checked this out because I was so impressed with the later Hans Petter Moland/ Stellan Skarsgård collaboration, “Kraftidioten,” but “A Somewhat Gentle Man” (Norwegian: “En ganske snill mann”) didn’t quite work for me. Despite its great title, the dark humor is slightly off, its secondary characters aren’t as memorable, and then there’s the ick factor.
The ick, by the way, isn’t about violence; it’s about sex.
Skarsgård is excellent as Ulrik, a pony-tailed mob enforcer who, as the movie opens, is being released from prison after 12 years. A friendly guard offers him a bottle of booze and a piece of advice: Keep moving forward; don’t look back. So what’s the first thing Ulrik does when he steps out the gates? He looks back.
Not with animosity. If anything Ulrik seems stupefied, and it takes us a while to figure out it’s no pose. He was once a man who could kill without thought, but now he’s a man who doesn’t have many thoughts. Mostly he’s interested in going along to getting along. To a cringe-worthy degree.
At a café, he meets his old mob boss, Rune Jensen (Bjørn Flobert of “Kitchen Stories”), and the gum-chewing, matter-of-fact but argumentative assistant Rolf (Gard B. Eidsvold), and the former sets him up with a place to live, a job, and an assignment. The place to live is with Rune’s sister, Karen Margrethe (Jorunn Kjellsby), an ugly, unpleasant woman who sticks Ulrik in the prison-like surroundings of her basement. The job is at an automechanic’s garage, run by Sven (Bjørn Sundquist), who talks out subjects in long run-on sentences, and who warns Ulrik away from his secretary, Merete (Janikke Kruse), a pretty but severe woman. And the assignment is to kill the guy who sent Ulrik to jail 12 years ago.
So what happens? He winds up rejecting the assignment but sleeping with the woman. Not Merete; Karen Margrethe. That’s the ick factor. Imagine Billy Crystal sleeping with Anne Ramsey in “Throw Momma from the Train” and you get an inkling. Then times it by three.
First, Karen Margrethe brings him a television set, which he adjusts to get a Polish station; then crappy dinner leftovers; then increasingly elaborate dinners as her interest is piqued by his lack of interest. Finally, she steps out of her voluminous underwear and lays down on the small bed where he’s watching TV and tells him to get on. He does so dutifully. Not many movie scenes are tougher to watch.
Then it happens again. And again. Each time, you’re waving your hands in surrender: “No ... no!”
The world—and other women—act upon Ulrik as well. Merete’s former husband shows up at the garage and acts like an asshole; Ulrik watches. Ulrik’s ex-wife (Kjersti Holmen) tells him his son has disowned him, then asks for a quickie; he obliges. The son, Geir (Jan Gunnar Røise), finally meets the father, but without emotion, and introduces him as his uncle to his pregnant wife; Ulrik nods and goes along with it. Meanwhile, whenever he takes out a cigarette he’s told he can’t smoke there.
But slowly he begins to break out of his spiritual prison. Sven has a heart attack and asks Ulrik to watch the garage, where the ex-hubby shows up and beats on Merete until Ulrik headbutts him, takes him outside, warns him against hitting women and children, then breaks both arms. Merete is slowly grateful and, in passive-aggressive fashion, seduces him. But Karen Margrethe suspects, gets jealous, rats him out. All the small things Ulrik had slowly built up crumble, so he agrees to take back the assignment to kill the man who sent him to prison. But will he go through with it? Can he still kill without thought? Without conscience?
The ending is nice—standing outside at the salvage yard, enjoying a smoke, talking up the coming spring—and, again, Skarsgård is perfect in the role. You buy him as both acted upon and actor; as stupefied and smart. But the tone of the humor is either too loud (Sven’s run-on sentences) or too soft (the no-smoking bits). A few years later, with “Kraftidioten,” Moland gets the tone perfect.