With the right touch, humor can be found in any topic, no matter how dark and abhorrent. And there are few circumstances darker than a parent suffering the murder of their only child. Unfortunately, In Order of Disappearance doesn’t quite get the comedy right. It doesn’t necessarily get it wrong, either, but its minimalist and deadpan presentation feel like a half-measure when full comedic absurdity was called for.
Nils Dickman (Stellan Skarsgård) is a snowplow operator in the barren winter mountains of Norway. Through an unfortunate turn of events, his son is murdered by gangsters who are led by the quirky, but ruthless boss who goes by the sobriquet “The Count” (Pål Sverre Hagen). Incensed and driven to avenge his son, Nils begins killing his way up the underworld food chain, which accidentally sparks a turf war between The Count’s gang and the Serbian mafia, with Nils caught right in the middle. With a little luck and heavy machinery, Nils might survive the crossfire long enough to exact his revenge.
The tone of the film is not subtle. It’s obvious that director Mikkel Brænne Sandemose and writer John Kåre Raake had a vision, and In Order of Disappearance is heavily colored by that direction. A strange bloodless pallor colors all of the performances, which perhaps is supposed to mesh with the general aesthetic of the colorless and empty landscape, but instead just comes off as unnatural and off-putting. Ironically, the only character with any warmth at all is The Count, but only because his neurotic behavior gives audiences some familiar humanity to cling to, not because he’s a likeable character. Everyone else is just reciting lines and then barely reacting. It’s definitely an artistic choice, but it doesn’t add much to the experience.
The comedy is hit or miss. The sight gags, like a character peering through literal eye holes, are funny. Similarly, awkward situations, like a corpse being jacked up unceremoniously for viewing in the morgue, are the darkest and most delicious kind of comedy. Regrettably, In Order of Disappearance doesn’t maintain this level of humor throughout. There are other obvious comedic bits, but they’re unlikely to produce mirth in the viewer. Unfortunately, it’s unclear if this is just an example of humor not traveling well internationally. Be that as it may, US audiences will not have much to laugh at, which is a shame, because the story has elements that are rich with comedic material.
The death of a child is one of those self-evident unnatural events that borders on absurdity. As such, an effective way to approach this topic is with absurdity. While In Order of Disappearance does reach for that goal a few times with dialog, it never manages to grasp it and hold on to it. And yet, the film, as a whole, is absurd in that the characters all behave so affectedly rather than naturally. It’s just not absurd in a way that serves the film or is interesting to watch.
There seems to be an underlying theme about father’s losing sons in this film, but what point the movie is trying to make is lost on this writer. Given how subtle many elements in this film are, the explanation is probably there – it’s just extremely understated. And if understatement was the destination for the filmmakers, then they have reached it. They just didn’t reach entertainment.