This past weekend, Lionsgate released the Finnish action movie Sisu on a little over a thousand screens and made around $3.25 million, good enough to break into the box-office top ten. That’s not quite a wide release, but it isn’t exactly small, either. This is one of those titles designed to go after a specific audience of film-savvy genre fiends; the studio has reportedly set up private screenings for influencer types and even shipped a print to Quentin Tarantino himself. It’s another example that in today’s age, cult movies no longer happen organically; there’s no slow and steady build through years of people sneaking away to their friends’ rec rooms to discover strange, previously unheard-of fare. No, even cult movies have opening weekends now.
The good news is that Sisu deserves that extra push. It’s a largely wordless World War II thriller about a grizzled, haunted loner who strikes a massive vein of gold in the remote reaches of Lapland, only to find himself tormented by a platoon of retreating Nazis. The year is 1944, and the war is basically lost for the Germans, who are laying waste to everything in their path. They don’t think much of our hero, Aatami Korpi (the beautifully weathered Jorma Tommila), when they first come across him and his adorable one-eyed dog. “Grandfather,” they call him. Of course, it turns out that he’s a legendary Finnish commando who lost his mind after his home and family were destroyed and became a one-man death squad referred to by his former Russian nemeses as Koschel, “the Immortal.” As the Nazis chase him, he picks them off, sometimes individually and sometimes en masse.
The basic idea here is nothing new, and Sisu could have easily become a repetitive, standard-issue killfest, enough to satisfy genre fiends but of little value otherwise. What makes it work is director Jalmari Helander’s increasingly creative ideas about how his hero should go about wasting the Nazis in his path, as the film graduates from humble head stabbings and limb snappings to more ambitious and explosive mayhem. So much so that it all starts to border on a philosophical treatise about survival and perseverance. The word sisu, we’re told by some opening text, is an impossible-to-define Finnish concept denoting a “white-knuckled form of courage and unimaginable determination.” The text then adds: “Sisu manifests itself when all hope is lost.”
The film’s action embodies this idea repeatedly. In each circumstance, Aatami must first suffer the tortures of the damned — sometimes at his own hands — before he can prevail. So there’s a tense, complicated emotional journey to each sequence: We’re not just eagerly anticipating what new horrors our hero will unleash on others, but also what new horrors will be unleashed on him. And the director’s insistence on upping the ante with each incident means that we’re fully in the realm of the surreal by the end, which is saying a lot for a movie whose first act features one man slicing open another’s neck underwater and then using him as a breathing apparatus.
Some will say Sisu recalls Mad Max: Fury Road or Inglorious Basterds (and with chapter headings delivered in bold, colorful western-style lettering, the film certainly seems to have borrowed a page from Tarantino’s stylebook), but I kept imagining it as what might have happened had Sergio Leone been alive to direct Crank: High Voltage. The gonzo stylization ramps up as the onscreen action becomes more unhinged, and Helander enhances the genre theatrics with occasional bits of visual poetry. He works in open, desolate spaces and captures brooding skies and endless horizons, where distant cities burn with ghostly foreboding. But he doesn’t keep his action at a distance. If anything, he closes in to almost uncomfortable degrees, rubbing our faces in the dirt, dust, sweat, metal, grime, and blood of this world. As a result, Sisu veers between the elemental and the ethereal. Once it’s over, it feels like you must have dreamed it.
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