The Keeper Of Lost Causes (Kvinden i buret)

Denmark (2013) Dir. Mikkel Nørgaard

It’s hard to believe that this dark and procedural crime thriller was directed by the same man who helmed the bad taste comedy Klown but stranger things have happened. Based on the novel Kvinden i buret by Jussi Adler-Olsen the plot is rather standard by-the-numbers Nordic Noir driven by an interesting tale that lifts the lid on the darker side of Scandinavian life, which really has plenty of mileage for at least a six part TV series.

Maverick police officer Carl Mørck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) returns to the force after a botched sting sees one colleague die and another permanently injured, placing him in a mundane job sorting through long forgotten cold cases alongside partner Assad (Fares Fares). Wanting to go back onto the meatier jobs Carl takes an interest in a five year-old case concerning the disappearance of a young female politician Merete Lynggaard (Sonja Richter). Merete mysteriously disappeared from a passenger ferry mid trip and the verdict of suicide was declared but Carl isn’t convinced and against his boss’s wishes, he reopens the case.

The narrative is somewhat curious as the events of Merete’s disappearance runs concurrently with Carl and Assad’s modern day investigation, often neatly merging the two scenarios into one frame as Carl envisions the events as the recorded accounts dictate before his eyes. This works as a time saving exposition device but also disarms the audience in keeping track of the timeline as we suddenly become unaware of which is the present and which is the flashback.

Having not read the novel I can only assume that it is a heftier tome than the 92 minute run time of this film suggests, since the idea that Nikolaj Arcel’s deft screenplay is trying to cram more material into a the space allotted to strikes early and lasts the duration. The fleshing out of the characters is the biggest victim here, throwing many key supporting cast, such as Carl’s superiors, into the mix with little reason to care for them. On a positive note, it means the story barrels along at a brisk pace, which Mikkel Nørgaard takes advantage of to hold the audience’s interest for the duration.

We may not be sure why Carl should gravitate towards this particular case – aside possibly from Merete’s striking looks –  but as luck would have it, his uncanny hunch is correct that the pieces of the story and the suicide verdict don’t fit. Visiting the scene of the crime, Carl disapproves immediately the idea that Merete was pushed overboard while increasing doubts she may have jumped. Unfortunately, the one key eye witness who could provide the answers is Merete’s mentally handicapped younger brother Ulle (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) but he is too traumatised and damaged to be of any help.

The flashback sequences show us Merete’s fate is simple but creepily calculated, leaving her at the mercy of a disembodied male voice who informs her he will change her food and toilet bucket every twenty fours; meanwhile she is to think about why she is in the situation she is in. Suffice to say Merete is as perplexed as the audience is although she should more clues to go on, while we have to wait for Carl and Assad to figure it out.

True to the crime thriller template there is plenty of misdirection and swerves whenever the truth begins to appear on the horizon all of which are rooted in a horrific past that is gradually revealed in all its disturbing and unflinching glory. The problem here is that while the revenge plot feels unjust and extreme the path to it makes our villain a rather sympathetic figure, a tragic product of the pernicious environment he grew up in.

Our leading man is a similarly flawed but thankfully less psychotic – although possibly just as sociopathic – and not just a result of that unfortunate last case either. Rarely smiling, Carl grimaces his way through the investigation fresh off the trauma of the prior events while nursing a broken heart after his wife leaving him. His “typical” teenage step-son shows up after rowing with his mother but offers little except the usual selfishness to add to Carl’s stress.

If Carl is brusqueness personified and devoid of tact then Assad is the voice of reason, the loyal companion and the one who gets real results only to suffer official punishment following Carl’s persistent disobedience. They make an effective tandem, if a slightly familiar one, which is free from testosterone enough to avoid accusations of sexism by not having Carl paired up with a female, since Assad essentially fills that role anyway.

Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Fares Fares fit their roles perfectly, the former having naturally rugged features to bring the inexpressive Carl to life, while the latter just comes across a decent chap. Their chemistry is wholly convincing and they make for a successful team, built on both trust and friendship and an underlying conflict of styles, which ironically compliments each other. However it seems that Assad is seen as the sidekick to Carl and not an equal partner, which needs to be addressed as this film franchise is to continue as per the news that a sequel – Adler-Olsen’s novel is part of a successful series – is in production.

Again The Keeper Of Lost Causes probably would have suited the multi-episode TV format to allow the story to fully evolve and reveal its true depth along, with exploring the backgrounds of the characters and their interesting personalities further – director Nørgaard has experience in TV having directed episodes of Borgen – but this format delivers a tightly crafted if conventional Nordic Noir sugar hit for mass consumption.