Jamie Reviews Hans Petter Moland’s A Somewhat Gentle Man [PIFF 2011 Review]

Ulrik, played with understated humor and gravity by Stellan SkarsgÃ¥rd, has been in prison for 12 years. Too long for him, but not long enough for others. Most people he meets back in his old ‘hood didn’t expect him to be out so soon, including his ex-wife (Kjersti Holmen) and his old boss (Bjørn Floberg). The latter wants to help his old employee out. He gets him a job at an auto garage and buys him a gun so he can kill the man who ratted him out to the cops. Ulrik just wants a quiet new life, but his old life still demands that prior expectations apply. He also has a changed world to get used to. He could freely smoke cigarettes in his jail cell, but good luck finding anywhere he can do it on the outside.

A Somewhat Gentle Man is a black comedy where the grisly laughs are built into a crime movie plot. Ulrik has a reputation for being a dangerous man, but it’s the other folks around him that have little interest in safety. Women are drawn to him, regularly making him food and dropping their undergarments for the ex-con’s benefit, though not always in that order; men require him to adhere to a rigid sense of honor. His old boss, Rune, thinks letting old slights go is an act of weakness, his new boss Sven (Bjørn Sundquist) thinks he should just show up to work on time, fix cars, and keep his hands off the secretary (Jannike Kruse). The other two would be easier if there were actual cars to fix.

Director Hans Petter Moland (Aberdeen) and screenwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson (Little Soldier) guide A Somewhat Gentle Man with a precise hand. The humor has touches of the Coens, while the little-man-against-the-criminal-world plot and small-town setting bring to mind post-Tarantino genre indies from the mid-1990s, stuff like Palooka-ville and even Trees Lounge. The jokes aren’t huge. Rather, they sneak up on you, and sometimes it’s not even clear it is a joke until we see SkarsgÃ¥rd’s reaction. The actor is befuddled, but accepting. If his landlady (Jorunn Kjellsby) is going to lay down on his bed and insist it was his idea, it’s probably better to go along rather than argue.

Woven into this is a B-plot about Ulrik and his estranged son Geir (Jan Gunnar Røise). The old man wants to make up for lost time, but only if it doesn’t inconvenience the boy–who is now a man with his own wife and a child on the way. Ulrik’s future hinges on whether or not he would commit violence again. Would a good grandfather carry a gun and shoot a man for sleeping with his wife? It’s a question that Ulrik can’t answer. I don’t believe it’s because he doesn’t know what the answer is, but it remains to be seen whether other people will leave him to decide his own fate.

A Somewhat Gentle Man has a leisurely, measured pace and a chilly, no-frills visual style. The cinematography by Philip Øgaard (Kitchen Stories) uses the gray skies and the even grayer décor of the rundown locations to create a cold visual palette. The moral landscape of A Somewhat Gentle Man is rigid and forged from harsh materials, and the movie’s style matches these dark ideas with dark images. Yet, it also avoids being too heavy with it. There is violence and it has realistic and often gruesome consequences, but it is never overdone or excessive. Everything in this film has been fine-tuned to have just the right effect.

The end of the movie provides some answers for Ulrik, and not in the ways he expected. Moland manages to give his movie a sunshine ending without making it feel forced, just the last of the many surprises A Somewhat Gentle Man has to offer.

A Somewhat Gentle Man plays the Portland International Film Festival on 2/21, 2/22, and 2/23.