The filmmaker behind that holiday splatter Santa favorite, “Rare Exports” is back, serving up a Finnish revenge Western set during the last year of World War II in “Sisu,” a tale of gold, Nazis and the guy who kills them for taking his diggings from him.
This Jalmari Helander film is, as Thomas Hobbes’ might have described life in Lapland during wartime, “nasty, brutish and short.” It’s also folkloric, flesh-tearing “fun, for those in on the “gorier the better” splatter film joke.
Finland, remember, was invaded by the Poland-carving-up Soviet Russians at the start of World War II, with the so-called “Winter War” becoming their Ukrainian invasion of that era — a debacle that only huge losses and sheer numbers could salvage. When the Germans invaded Soviet Russia, “the enemy of my enemy” became Finland’s friend, and thus ally.
“Sisu” is set in 1944, when that alliance has ended and German “scorched earth” retreat from the northern reaches of Finland has taken over.
Aatami Korpi (“Rare Exports” veteran Jorma Tommila) has removed himself from all that, he thinks. He’s a silent, solitary gold prospector, living out his days panning and digging with only a dog and a horse for company.
Let the fleeing German bombers shriek overhead, he’s got his rifle, his pickaxe, his tent and hermit’s life.
But discovering the Mother Lode changes that. A retreating, depleted SS tank company led by its very own SS Obersturmführer (Aksel Hennie) crosses paths with him. And before we know it, it’s on like Kittilä Kong as the Nazis figure out they’re not dealing with a man, but a “legend,” a trained and experienced killer with “Sisu,” a dogged determination to persevere, prevail and “refuse to die.”
Helander cannily shot this film in English and tips his hand early by being sure to show Aatami Korpi’s “Lavvu” tent, a traditional teepee by any other name.
You cross Korpi, you face his Old West vengeance. You may have a couple dozen disciplined veterans of The Eastern Front and a tank under your command. Something tells us it’s not going to be enough.
“Sisu” is sort of a “1917” odyssey of crossing a vast, unforgiving battlefield, with an Old West ethos and splatter picture vibe. Finnish women hostages, seized as sex slaves by the monstrous Nazis, are here not so much as a goal to be saved, but as the brutalized eyewitnesses and prophetic seers (Mimosa Willamo) who let the villains know what they’re in for.
They’ve “effed around,” in modern parlance. Now, they’re about to find out.
The various obstacles and dispatchings of bad guys standing between this Finnish-stiltskin and his gold become more and more over-the-top as this tale unfolds. Our hero repeatedly, gruesomely survives the unsurvivable, not via supernatural means but by simple Bugs Bunny Physics. And the things he does with that pickaxe.
It’s all a bit much, but all in good, gory fun even if this genre mashup never quite transcends any genre it borrows from.
And Tommila, like Stellan Skarsgard’s anti-hero father of “In Order of Disappearance,” proves a colorful, heroic and brutally efficient and creative avenger, a furious Finn expert in filleting fascists.
Reviewed at its Florida Film Festival North American premiere.
Rating: As “R” as it gets, “for strong bloody violence, gore and language”
Cast: Jorma Tommila, Aksel Hennie, Jack Doolan and Mimosa Willamo
Credits: Scripted and directed by Jalmari Helander. A Lionsgate release.
Running time: 1:31