If John Wick was a sparse Finnish spaghetti western, one full of brutal, graphic carnage and a grizzled, silent protagonist absolutely eviscerating Nazis, it might look quite a bit like writer/director Jalmari Helander’s Sisu. The Rare Exports helmer delivers a wild, head-stabbing, fascist-exploding good time and the feel-good movie of 2023. Unless you’re a Nazi. But if you are a Nazi, you should feel bad about yourself and the choices you made.
At its core, the plot is simple. In the waning days of World War II, Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila) has left the war behind to mine in isolation. He finds gold. A group of fleeing Nazis, led by the ruthless SS officer Bruno Helldorf (Aksel Hennie), try to take his gold. The prospector murders them in increasingly excessive fashion. There are so many flying limbs, just so many.
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Things are, of course, more complicated than this, but from a narrative perspective, that’s the driving force. It turns out that Korpi is no mere prospector, as we already glean from his astonishing murder capabilities. There are kills that can only be described as works of pure butchery genius that befit his description as a near-mythic “one-man death-squad.” And it’s not enough for the Nazis to just be the genocidal freaks we know them to be, they also travel with a truck full of women to rape at their convenience, so they’re extra bad. As if we weren’t already rooting for someone to throw landmines at their heads just for being Nazis.
The early going of Sisu strings together sequences of escalating tension followed by sudden eruptions of violence. Rinse and repeat. It’s propulsive and exciting, and again, soaked in gore and bodily goo. Bleak and thrilling, it does, as so many movies that start out so strong do, begin to sag and meander a bit in the middle, which is a bit of a carnal sin for a 91-minute movie. In the grand scheme, however, it’s a rather minor downturn and before long, a villain is dispatched in fun, inventive fashion and we get back to business.
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The earlier spaghetti western comparison was not hyperbole. We get plenty of grim, loaded stare downs, and there’s even a Morricone-esque score playing behind it all as the film cuts between closeups of hard, hard men. True to form, in the hands of Tommila and Hennie, a slight squint or twitch of an eyelid says more than their words—or visceral grunts in Tommila’s case since, again, he doesn’t speak—and they each offer up performances much more nuanced than the onslaught of exploding bodies and spurting wounds initially imply.
Helander and cinematographer Kjell Lagerroos capture the stark, sweeping vistas and barren landscape with a sharp eye for composition and movement. Pocked with scars of war, it’s a lovely visage that only further drives home the austere isolation and emotional desolation of the place, time, and characters. This creates the sensation of a lawless frontier that more than suits the material.
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With the extremes both sides are willing to go to for gold, Sisu seems to want to say something about the nature of greed and the dereliction of the human soul—these men kill and die and forfeit their humanity in the name of shiny little rocks. After all, if either party could simply let it go, they could walk away at any point. Beyond that admittedly shallow reading, there’s not much more than the bloody stylistics. But dammit, that’s spectacular on its own and might just be enough. [Grade: A-]
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