Something is rotten in the state of Denmark - specifically rural Denmark, where the events that unfold in the stylish small-town domestic chiller Deliver Us From Evil will remind Sam Peckinpah fans more than a little of the director's violent "fascist classic" (as dubbed by critic Pauline Kael) Straw Dogs.
But there is a key tonal difference. Straw Dogs was shot completely straight; the film and its long brutal climactic scene - an American mathematician (Dustin Hoffman) defends his remote English farmhouse against a group of local workmen who, earlier, raped his wife - still has the power, I suspect, to unsettle and polarize audiences today. Deliver Us From Evil, which did the festival rounds last year (including Toronto), delivers its variations of male rage with a definite wink.
Perhaps Danish writer-director Ole Bornedal (who remade his creepy 1994 thriller Nightwatch for Hollywood in 1997) wanted to remake Peckinpah's 1971 film but learned Rod Lurie got first dibs. (Lurie's Straw Dogs, reset in the deep South, is scheduled for release next year.)
In any case, while Bornedal's town is more fleshed out than Peckinpah's, the story and character parallels are there - and fun to spot as we move briskly through the timeline. But you'll spoil the fun if you try to find metaphorical significance in the xenophobia of the town's unemployed males, who direct their racist taunts and, later, beer-fuelled violence at Alain, a Bosnian Muslim refugee who lost his wife and children in the war.
We are coaxed into viewing the film as a darkly humorous fairy tale of community terror by the saturated colours and a female narrator, who introduces us to the main characters and chimes in from time to time to remind us this is only a story.
Johannes (Lasse Rimmer) is a successful, righteous and unflappably upbeat lawyer who has moved back to his hometown with his attractive wife Pernille (Lene Nystrom) - sporting her ample cleavage throughout the movie - and his two angelic children. When we first meet him he is buying a powerful nail gun; this, we know right away, will come in handy later. Pernille misses the urban life and is also starved for hanky-panky, while Johannes is more interested in home renovation, in particular, taking off his shirt to help Alain, whom he has employed to dig the foundation for a new addition to his remote country manor.
Johannes's brother Lars (Jens Andersen, giving the film's standout performance) is a truck driver and heavy drinker. He beats his mousy girlfriend (Pernille Vallentin), who has just revealed she is pregnant. Just as Lars privately vows to change his ways, his truck hits a bump. Believing he has run over and killed the wife of the town's ultra-conservative elder Ingvar (Mogens Pedersen), Lars hides the body and devises a plan to frame Alain, an easy target.
The action takes a dark turn at the town festival that evening, and soon Johannes's home is surrounded - and the movie revs up.
As Deliver Us From Evil leads us into the siege scenario of its second half, it lets loose unbridled violence peppered with clichés (roaring fires, dumb cops, etc.) that are twisted enough to deliver us from the feeling that we know exactly where the film is headed.
DELIVER US FROM EVIL
- Written and directed by Ole Bornedal
- Starring Lasse Rimmer, Lene Nystrom, Jens Andersen, Pernille Vallentin, Mogens Pedersen and Bojan Navojec
- Classification: 18A
Deliver us From Evil opens Oct. 8 at the Carlton in Toronto.
Special to The Globe and Mail