Jar City

Jar City (Mýrin) (2006)

Jar City (Mýrin) first published by Film4

Summary: In Baltasar Kormákur’s Icelandic chiller, a police inspector investigates both a murder and his nation’s inherited history.

Review: The label film noir may conjure images of New York’s mean streets or Paris’ shadowy avenues, but in fact, as Erik Skjoldbærg’s Norway-set Insomnia proved in 1997, the genre can also find a perfect home in the unforgivingly stark landscapes of Europe’s northernmost regions – and now Baltasar Kormákur‘s Jar City, based on the award-winning 2002 novel Mýrin by Arnaldur Indriðason, transforms Iceland into the site for lowlife criminality, cold-blooded murder and some bleak moral soul-searching. If the snowy backdrops suggest a film more blanc than noir, there is little (besides the welcome presence of some gallow’s humour) to brighten this film’s dark core.  

It is more or less the present day. An aging loner named Holberg has just been found battered to death in his filthy suburban home. “A typical Icelandic murder,” declares Inspector Erlendur (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) at the crime scene, “messy and pointless – and with no attempt to conceal the evidence.”

What is less clear is the motive or the identity of the killer. The only clue is an old photo, hidden on the premises, that shows the grave of a girl who died, aged just four, some three decades earlier. When Elrendur discovers that the girl’s mother had committed suicide in the Seventies shortly after her daughter’s death, and that at the time the younger Holberg, together with two of his fellow hoodlums (one now a notoriously violent inmate, the other long vanished) and a corrupt police sergeant, had been implicated (if never found guilty) in some rather murky local business, the gruff Inspector quickly intuits that Holberg was probably the girl’s illegitimate father, and that he has been killed by someone out for belated revenge.

Erlendur is not wrong; but in a film focused on the mysteries of our genetic code – what it both reveals and conceals about who we are and where we come from – an uncomfortable family resemblance starts to emerge between this now very cold case, Erlundur’s relationship with his heroin-addicted, pregnant daughter Eva (Ágústa Eva Erlendsdóttir), and a biologist named Örn (Atli Rafn Sigurðsson) who is obsessively conducting a parallel investigation as he grieves the recent death of his own very young daughter.   

Viewed merely as a piece of gritty police procedural, Jar City delivers everything a hard-boiled fan could want – but there is also plenty on offer for those in search of something more out of the ordinary. For a start, there is the unusual Icelandic setting, here not merely exploited for the occasional flash of local colour (boiled sheep’s heads sold at fast-food counters, etc.), but also made integral to the plot. For featured in the film is a relatively new, occasionally controversial and utterly real private company (deCODE Genetics) that has been granted unique access by the government to the isolated populace’s medical specimens and genetic data as part of a genomic study – and the film too takes a hard, clinical look at the nation’s paternal legacy, measurable not only in traces of the odd medical deviation but also in loneliness, melancholy and brooding despair. When Holberg’s former associate Elliði (Theódór Júlíusson) is heard telling Erlendur, “Solitary is driving me crazy”, he may as well be speaking for his entire homeland, locked into its own brand of cabin fever from which it may well be doomed never to escape, as long as its past remains encoded in its very lifeblood.  

Add to this the intense performances from the two Sigurðssons (unrelated, ironically enough), Kormákur’s clever manipulation of chronology, a haunting choral score, some very topical material on data privacy, and a crime story that is never far removed from tragedy, and you have a superior noir with a very strong sense of place.     

Strap: A cold case in a cold place: Iceland’s chilly legacy comes under investigation in Baltasar Kormákur’s tragic noir.    

Anton Bitel