Sweden (2014) Dir. Tarik Saleh
Hopefully the production details of this film will have made it abundantly clear that there are no deaf, dumb, and blind pinball wizards here so we can get that reference out of the way. What we do have is a gritty slice of Nordic Noir putting a unique and interesting spin on the crime genre by shifting the focus from the criminals to those previously on the periphery.
Estelle (Moa Gammel) returns to Sweden from Asia with her young daughter Isabel (Inez Bruckner) in tow to the delight of her younger sister Blanca (Lykke Li Zachrisson) and mother Katarina (Ewa Fröling). Stopped at the airport by the police, all Estelle has with her is the ashes of her late husband Tommy, the leader of a gang who robbed an airport of 4 million Euros a year earlier.
When word gets out that Estelle is back, his former cronies welcome her with open arms, until she reveals that Tommy is coming back to Sweden and he has sent Estelle ahead of him to claim his share of the money. This worries Bobby (Ola Rapace) in particular since he has taken over Tommy’s turf and knows that all hell will break loose once Tommy returns. But there is much more at stake for Estelle is he doesn’t.
A wonderfully simple yet intriguing premise, Tommy works as a straight up crime thriller as much as it represents a huge leap forward for the role of the gangster’s moll. Always a secondary character designed to provide some glamour, sex appeal, and occasionally a bit of added spice through a verboten love triangle, Estelle steps out from the shadows and into the spotlight to take on the big boys at their own game, with her trump card being her dead husband.
Tarik Saleh’s second feature film boasts a story by Anton Hagwall that demands every possibility of the outcome be explored and scrutinised and every drop of tension and suspense drained out of them. Unfortunately Saleh wraps everything inside 90 minutes making this a sprint through what has the potential to be a involving and sinuous saga, spread over 8 hour long episodes like most Nordic Noir shows.
But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater with what Saleh has given us; the only real casualty of this brisk run time is the backstories and connections between the main characters. Different groups and gangs are introduced into the story, all of whom know Estelle, are aware of, or maybe even involved in the robbery and they certainly know Tommy.
Like the eponymous Rebecca in Du Maurier’s novel and Hitchcock’s classic film, Tommy is never seen but his presence looms large over every scene, the mere mention of his name eliciting varied reactions, from respect to fear, delight to panic. This tells us all we need to know about Tommy and the power he wielded, sufficient for Estelle to use it to her advantage in getting the money from Bobby.
Estelle is fortunate to have an ally in Steve (Johan Rabaeus) a very powerful crime lord and Isabel’s godfather, unwittingly providing the muscle for Estelle for when Bobby stalls in coughing up the cash, which Estelle believes he stole from Tommy. Bobby has an ace up his sleeve in his secret relationship with Blanca, who naively believes she is more than his “other woman” but no amount of warnings from her big sister will change that.
Interest in Tommy naturally extends to the other side of the law and even though they are dubious about the ashes really being Tommy’s, the police have no compunction in releasing the news of his death to the press. This causes further trouble for Estelle since she has had to call in favours from other gangs with connections to Tommy, and in doing her bidding starts a gang war.
This is where things start to get messy due to the haste of the storytelling. All the gangs and their leaders are summarily introduced, their criminal credentials almost to type – Cokie (Azzan Jack) and his fellow all black gang are the drug smugglers for example – and previously have no connection to Bobby or Steve which renders them as little more as a means to further the plot rather be a viable concern.
Along with Steve’s history with Tommy and indeed that of Bobby’s, how he came to hook up with Blanca and other points of interest regarding this complex tapestry of criminal connections are things the audience want to know more about. This might not concern anyone watching this film for a quick fix of brooding Scandi drama as it means the story keep moving – it all depends on how much meat you like on your bones.
Some habits of the genre are not abandoned like the brutality and violence it begets, some of it deeply uncomfortable to watch. A quest for information involving an old open top cooker is particular painful, making the victim wish he’d bought a microwave instead, but the film is also rife with psychological violence too, just to ensure our nerves are suitably frayed.
Holding everything together is Estelle, perhaps not a paradigm changer as a character since Nordic Noir has redefined the female role but within the gangster/crime diegesis, she is an original. Moa Gammel does a convincing job in relaying the extent of Estelle’s resolve as a hardnosed woman in a male dominated world, all the while hiding the true scared bluffer of a mother wanting to escape and start anew with her daughter.
Tommy isn’t perfect because it has much more to offer than what Saleh gives us but that isn’t to dismiss it outright. Through the subversive perspective of the moll instead of the gangster, we have a tight and chilling complex study of the aberrant criminal mind and the inner workings of a corrupt underworld to enjoy. Perfect for a dark Saturday night’s viewing but would be better as a TV mini-series.