The combination of desolate backdrops and callous, moody anti-heroes provides an apt recipe for some especially bleak mysteries. Great states-side examples like Fargo and A Simple Plan thrive on this formula, wherein the internal coldness of the characters match their snow-covered external worlds. Perhaps the clearest emergence of this style unsurprisingly comes from Scandinavian countries, in the form of the recent “Nordic Noir” craze, a general name given to brutal novels, TV shows and movies hailing from that part of the planet.
Nordic Noir has been around for a long time, but it came to international prominence with Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, such big sellers that even after Larsson’s death, the publisher figured out a way to continue the franchise with David Lagercrantz as author. After the David Fincher’s version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in 2011, Hollywood decided to skip the second and third books, softly rebooting the franchise with an adaptation of Lagercrantz’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web, replacing Rooney Mara with Claire Foy as the badass hacker/decimator of rapists and women abusers, Lisbeth Salander.
If you don’t feel as if you’ve had your fill of cold people in cold places doing some cold shit after watching The Girl in the Spider’s Web, here are five great Scandinavian-produced thrillers you should seek out.
1. Headhunters (2011)
Director: Morten Tyldum
Based on the novel by one of Nordic Noir’s most popular provocateurs, Jo Nesbø, Headhunters is a scathing indictment of rampant materialism and narcissism covertly melded with an intense-as-all-hell workplace nail-biter. Disarmingly honest when depicting its greedy slimeball characters, the film’s emotionally distant and morally ambivalent tone, found in a lot of Scandinavian thrillers, provides a refreshing respite from typical Hollywood examples about anti-hero or villainous protagonists who eventually learn the evils of their ways by the third act. Roger (Aksel Hennie), the sniveling, parasitically greedy headhunter who gets himself into a heap of trouble after striking a deal with a shady executive (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, managing to portray an even cooler motherfucker than Jamie Lannister) in hopes of some quick cash, certainly gets his comeuppance. But director Morten Tyldum leaves the judging to the audience. Filled with head-spinning plot twists and turns, Headhunters is perfect for those craving corporate pulp with more backstabbing than an ’80s slasher flick.
2. Pusher (1996)
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
On paper, Pusher doesn’t really tell a new story: A low grade criminal (Kim Bodnia) screws up a major drug deal and has a very limited time to pay back his investors, unless he likes his body chopped into itty bitty pieces. Especially during the post-Tarantino renaissance of the ’90s, world cinema was overrun with such gritty crime dramas and thrillers. What makes Pusher stand out is the cracking energy and low budget innovation pumped into it by director Nicolas Winding Refn, who, even a couple of decades ago, attempted like his fellow countryman Lars Von Trier to breathe new art-house life into straight genre work. Refn employs a handheld and intimate look, but doesn’t go overboard with jump cuts: The most intriguing parts of Pusher occur not during moments of shockingly graphic violence, but during the quiet moments in which criminals shoot the shit, talking about various subjects like anal sex and dreams of opening restaurants, Refn focusing on how these hardened, violent criminals are still immature little boys on the inside.
3. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)
Director: Niels Arden Oplev
When it came time to bringing together a Hollywood adaptation of this Nordic Noir juggernaut, studio MGM took a page out of John Hammond’s book and spared no expense. They hired David Fincher to helm the project and loaded the cast with big and upcoming stars. But MGM was lacking one major element, perhaps the only one that really mattered: Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander.
Rapace’s star-making turn in the terrific native Swedish version creates such a formidable new hero for our modern tech world that any other imitation pales in comparison. It’s an easy choice to visualize such a take-no-prisoners defender of battered women as a stoic hero, Hollywood’s version of the badass female warrior archetype, but even in her most emotionally reserved moments, Rapace always hints at the pain, mostly brought on by a life of trauma, behind Salander’s emotionless exterior. Her inability to mask that pain through helping others who suffered like her creates the most three-dimensional version of the character yet. She’s the kind of hero who best benefits a mystery story that’s not centered on her, and that’s why The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the best in the trilogy. The two sequels focus too much on Salander’s personal past, and don’t provide nearly as gripping a thriller as the first, stand-alone story.
4. The Virgin Spring (1960)
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Grappling with the biblical interpretation of “an eye for an eye”—is swift and brutal justice the way to finally find peace through our grief?—Ingmar Bergman’s hypnotically grim masterwork The Virgin Spring is one of cinema’s most clear-headed studies of the very human thirst for vengeance, mainly because of how streamlined, how bare, Bergman’s premise and execution are. The 13th century Swedish ballad on which the script is based is included with Criterion’s recent Blu-ray release of this tense masterpiece: Barely three pages long, the ballad still tells a complete three-act story fraught with a horrible crime and the ruthless revenge that follows. The story of a girl who’s raped and murdered on her way to church, only for the murderers to end up staying the night with the girl’s father (Max Von Sydow), giving the father a chance to avenge this horrid wrongdoing, is executed with the emotional distance of a neutral bystander. Perhaps appropriately, because the film takes place during Sweden’s mass conversion to Christianity from Paganism, the notoriously agnostic Bergman points out how little difference there is between the two superstitions. He films the central rape scene from a distance, as if the audience becomes a quiet spectator, forcing us to face our usual inability or disinterest to right the world’s wrongs.
5. Insomnia (1997)
Director: Erik Skjoldbjærg
It’s true that thrillers usually thrive in darkness. That makes Insomnia, a tragedy-soaked noir, so special and unique in the way it expertly uses bright daytime settings and locations bathed in migraine-inducingly shiny whites in order to simulate the kind of dread that similar genre efforts achieve through the exact opposite visual aesthetic. Its story centers on a Swedish cop (Stellan Skarsgard) sent to the arctic line of Norway, where daylight never goes away, to solve the horrific murder of a teenage girl, only to become tangled in his own criminal mess after a shocking accident. With his impressive feature debut, director Erik Skjoldbjærg takes great advantage of the protagonist’s insomnia brought on by a combination of internal guilt from the accident, and the cop’s inability to sleep during daylight. With even interior locations bathed in bright whites, Skjoldbjærg never gives his protagonist a moment’s respite in the comfort of darkness, effortlessly inviting the audience into his deteriorating mental state. Even with the Christopher Nolan remake, the original still remains one of the most unique thrillers to come out of Scandinavia.