The Hunters (Jägarna)

Sweden (1996) Dir. Kjell Sundvall

After twenty years away in Stockholm, detective Erik Bäckström (Rolf Lassgård) returns home to the mountain village of Älvsbyn in Norrland in northern Sweden following the death of his abusive father where he is reunited with his younger brother Leif (Lennart Jähkel). One his first day working at the local police station Erik is called out to investigate a complaint of poaching of reindeer, a long running case which it seems the police have been ignoring. Despite warnings from his superiors, Erik continues to pursue the case, with each development causing upset in the local community leading to violent responses of the poachers, which just happens to include Leif among their number.

The 2011 sequel to this film was reviewed on this site recently under its renamed English title False Trail yet seeing this one second actually wasn’t that much of a jarring experience as it could have been – aside from Rolf Lassgård’s flat top haircut! While it was referenced in the second film the connections were minimal with that only the observant or those with good memories would pick up on. So, as much as one can watch the sequel in isolation the same applies here without having to feel obliged to pay attention to every tiny detail to join the dots.

The revealing factor of this film is that the small-minded, parochial, backwoods mentality of rural village folk is not limited to the US, it exists in Sweden too. Erik is given some gentle teasing for being a city boy upon his return but the village welcomes him with open arms and is rewarded a special “Returnee of the Month” award. However as a policeman his dogged pursuit of the reindeer case sees a clash of both personalities and professional philosophies with his new colleagues.

While trying to reconnect with Leif, his brother sides with his hunting buddies, the mouthpiece of the group being Tomme (Jarmo Mäkinen), a hot headed man who resists Erik’s questioning. When his unlicensed gun is confiscated Tomme continues to hunt with a borrowed gun, accidentally shooting a Russian berry picker while on another illegal hunt. An attempt to cover this up spirals out of control with the group digging themselves deeper into a hole as Erik gets closer to the truth.

It wouldn’t be a rural crime drama without corrupt police hindering the city boy’s investigation and being complicit in allowing the hunters to keep on with their illicit activities. When Erik is attacked by the gang, who have cleverly covered their tracks with false alibis, the case reaches Stockholm and the arrival of attorney investigator Anna Sivertsson (Helena Bergström) to add a touch of glamour to the proceedings. In a similar role is Filipino barmaid Nena (Editha Domingo) who is the target of the chauvinistic attitudes of the locals, finding support in the form of Erik. This romance develops out of the blue and is one of the many contrivances to forward the plot and measure the increasing levels of depravity and desperation of the hunters.

After seeing the sequel first one can see the differences and improvements in Kjell Sundvall’s storytelling and direction from this film. There is a clear attempt to attract US audiences with this film, hence the redneck type setting and characters, most of whom fall into familiar tropes. You have the good cop trying to do his job, the corrupt police superior, the attractive female cop, the troubled younger brother, the arrogant antagonist, the mentally challenged witness and so on. But they were all well portrayed by the cast and the audience is fully invested in their actions and wants to see justice served so this is just a minor quibble one has to deal with.

Interestingly Hollywood wanted to remake the film only using cowboys who shoot horses for fun; Sundvall, who wanted it to be more of First Blood type film, refused to sell the rights. Aside from the Swedish language this is pretty much Hollywood fare anyway. The ending, which brings with it a heartbreaking revelation about Papa Bäckström, has enough punch to avoid being pure schmaltz but the safeness of it is palpable.

As Nordic Noir goes this is quite conventional. The story is less a mystery than the sequel and more of an unfolding of the undesirable element’s reign of terror over the small town until the consequences of their actions catch up with them. The frustration is therefore not knowing what will happen next but waiting for the hunters will their get theirs.

The performances as mentioned before are very credible, with the possible exception of Jarmo Mäkinen whose arrogant persona is almost too “US jock” like, especially his brazen and appalling attitude towards women. The biggest surprise is Rolf Lassgård who looks odd with his short hair and not only that but his trademark booming voice isn’t present, it’s much lighter which means either he wasn’t smoking as much in his younger days or it is a product of the aging process. Physically he still has that commanding presence and it is refreshing to see him playing a character that isn’t as cynical as his later roles.

All in all The Hunters is a good film for what it is – unless you are an animal lover in which case you won’t enjoy the first five minutes where we see reindeer randomly shot, skinned and beheaded – delivering solid entertainment. I would honestly say the sequel is the superior film but this is interesting to see after the fact to see why Erik was so hesitant to return home fifteen years later.