“Lie still. I’ve never done this before… and there will be blood.” Lisbeth Salander, a stylish and intelligent enigma, is a character that embodies Scandinavian thrillers. Niels Arden Oplev’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) is fearless and fashionable, the architecture so modern it almost hurts. The two-and-a-half-hour run time bombards audiences with murky backstreet alleys, grey hotel rooms, and minimalist offices, rain loudly spattering the glass façade. Spectacularly shot, we are absorbed into a web of criminal networks, operating in a manner invisible to the ordinary civilian.
With the majority of the film exploring the dark undercurrent of financial crime, the sunlit setting of the ending seems to release us into a more cheerful world. Disguised in a suit, a blonde wig and heeled boots, Salander confidently strolls down a path lined with palm trees. When comparing the moodiness of Sweden and the sun-drenched Cayman Islands where the film concludes, they are worlds apart. The binary of darkness and light highlights setting as a stylistic choice, a familiar trope of Scandinavian thrillers.
The ruggedness of the Scandinavian thriller setting creates an atmosphere both enticing and unsettling, an effective formula long cemented in the film noir guidebook. One of the most popular modern figureheads of the genre, none other than Bill from Mamma Mia!, is the compelling Stellan Skarsgård. As the protagonist in both Insomnia (1997) and In Order of Disappearance (2014), Skarsgård epitomises the traditional elements of a noir “hero”. He is troubled, dark, mysterious, and ruthlessly determined.
In Insomnia, Skarsgård is detective Jonas Engström, investigating a murder in a remote Norwegian province in the Arctic circle. Along with his partner, Erik Vik, Engström ventures to the crime scene only to be greeted by the constant sunlight of the Arctic summer. The detectives are surrounded by 24-hour daylight, further disorientated by seemingly constant murky rainfall. During a stake-out attempt to catch the suspect, the misty atmosphere causes confusion and Vik mishears a command which sees him run into the path of Engström, who accidentally shoots and kills his partner. The film crescendos into a hurried cover-up attempt, fuelled by self-preservation and desperation.
Insomnia (remade in 2002 by Christopher Nolan) delivers on tension and darkness. Skarsgård’s character is driven by his troubled past and, paired with the unnerving setting and hostile climate, paved the way for a slew of contemporary Scandinavian thrillers. Seen similarly in Hans Petter Moland’s In Order of Disappearance, Skarsgård’s seemingly ordinary character transforms from ordinary working man to a father hungry for revenge.
Nils Dickman (Skarsgård), working as a snow plough driver in the snow-covered Nordic landscape, learns of his son’s death by an apparent heroin overdose. Dickman’s grief turns to suspicion, and he later learns that his son’s death was at the hands of a drug cartel. Propelled by grief, Dickman relentlessly hunts down the murderers. In Order of Disappearance becomes steadily darker, with gruesome scenes of dark red blood splashed and puddled across the glittering white snow. Amongst the staple noir moodiness, however, the script is surprisingly Tarantino-esque. Echoing the likes of Natural Born Killers, the film is darkly comedic. Its upcoming remake (Moland helming the action once again), Cold Pursuit, is in fact being marketed, in part, as a dark comedy while sharing the same remote setting.
David Fincher’s 2011 remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo further increased visibility for the Millennium series and Scandinavian crime drama as a genre. With a much larger budget of $100 million compared to Oplev’s $13 million, you would assume the result would be slicker and more bombastic. However, there are not many obvious differences between the two. They are equally sophisticated and stylised. It is difficult to distinguish exactly where a budget over five times larger went within the content of the movie.
Perhaps the most prominent difference is the relative fame of the actors in Fincher’s film. Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara give wholly compelling performances as Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander respectively. Their chemistry is palpable, and the mysteriousness of their characters only increases the sense of danger that is constant throughout the film. Fincher’s Stockholm setting is equally, if not slightly more focused on wealth, with contemporary architecture and impeccably dressed characters. Where Oplev’s Swedish version triumphs, however, is the relentlessness of violence and the dark moodiness of the setting. This may have been because Oplev’s Danish heritage and lived experience of Scandinavia assisted in transforming Larsson’s novel into a persuasively authentic film.
Unlike The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the movie version of Jo Nesbø’s Nordic thriller The Snowman was adapted into English straight away, tasking Scandi director Tomas Alfredson with taking the helm in the wake of his success with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. With a plethora of Hollywood talent under its wing, The Snowman was set to be something special. After its release, it became clear that it was… not. It was a mess of confusing characters, an unlikable protagonist, and, above all, none of the shocking horror that the trailer promised. The villain’s childlike taunting of the police is laughable, with the now infamous words “mister police” written alongside a stick-man drawing in the snow.
A similar setting to The Snowman takes In Order of Disappearance to a whole new level: the world is completely covered in snow. While in the latter this does promote the feeling of uneasiness and remoteness, it also seems to calm the intended horror effect in Alfredson’s film. Nesbø’s grisly crime scenes do not translate well onto the big screen. In one scene, a woman’s decapitated head is found sitting on top of an unfinished snowman. This particular structure in Nesbø’s novel is described in horrific, sickening detail: blood, bruises, frozen body parts. The movie version holds back somewhat on the grisly elements, so that it loses shock factor in favour of accidental humour. It seems that Scandinavian Noir has its kings, and perhaps The Snowman should have been left to the masters of the craft.