A Somewhat Gentle Man
Actor with forgettable face fits ‘Gentle Man’ mold
The talented Swedish-born actor Stellan Skarsgård has a face that’s almost instantly forgettable. I mean that as praise. His blandness — he’s not quite handsome, not quite homely — lets him slip unnoticed into the various skins of his characters, and under our skins as well. Suddenly we realize this unmemorable man is doing uncommonly fine and focused work.
Hollywood has used Skarsgård as sniffy Euro-snobs (“Good Will Hunting’’) and reliable exotica (his Bootstrap Bill in the “Pirates of the Caribbean’’ series); what he doesn’t get is a lot of leads. So the poker-faced Norwegian crime comedy “A Somewhat Gentle Man’’ is welcome, in part because Skarsgård is almost the whole show but also because the actor doesn’t use the role as an excuse to put on a big performance — to do more. On the contrary, he quite wonderfully does less.
His character, Ulrik, is getting released from prison as “A Somewhat Gentle Man’’ opens, and surely we’ve seen that one before. The misunderstood ex-con trying to find his place in an uncaring society, the girl who wants him to go straight, the crime boss who won’t let him. Yet nothing in Hans Petter Moland’s film plays according to the rules. The boss (Bjorn Floberg) is an ineffective blowhard whose business has gone to hell since the Lapps took over the local arms trade. The girl (Jannike Kruse), a sad-faced secretary at the garage where Ulrik works, wants nothing to do with him. Even Ulrik is less interested in heroics than in just getting through the day. This is film noir with drastically lowered expectations, and it can be deadpan hilarious.
Hulking through the film with a silvery ponytail and a quizzical expression, Skarsgård suggests a man who’s had his personality dialed back to zero by 12 years in prison. He may have gone in a killer but he came out with the slack reflexes of an overgrown child. Everything seems to surprise Ulrik — the boss’s insistence that he kill the man who set him up, the comic sexual advances of his ogre of a landlady (Jorunn Kjellsby) — but far back in those hooded gray eyes is the knowledge that nothing in this life can come as a surprise anymore. Like the title says, the hero is a good and mild-mannered man. Until he’s not.
At rare moments during the movie, Ulrik breaks into a sunbeam of a smile, even a delighted laugh, and you realize how much he and the actor playing him have been holding back. Those scenes are all connected with the ex-con’s grown son, Geir (Jan Gunnar Roise), who — again breaking with genre tradition — is perfectly happy to see the old man, even if Geir’s pregnant girlfriend (Julia Bache-Wiig) isn’t. Hope is in such short supply in these characters’ lives that when it surfaces, it appears absurd, almost mythical, like Bigfoot riding a unicorn. You’d laugh too.
For a passive-depressive Norwegian crime drama with not a lot in the way of plot, “A Somewhat Gentle Man’’ has a charmingly fluky sense of humor. I especially enjoyed the crime boss’s toady (Gard B. Eidsvold), who accepts his daily humiliations with the grace of a civil servant who thinks he’s set for life. The sex scenes with the landlady — Kjellsby could pass for a cigar store Indian on a dark night — are appalling in all the best ways. Most cheering of all is watching Skarsgård rise to the occasion with the balance of a craftsman rather than the ego of a star.