Sisu satisfies B-movie blood lust: Sometimes you just wanna see some Nazis get blown up

3 out of 5 stars

In the tundra of Finland in the last push of the Second World War, a weary gold miner digs; his dog, a grey-white poodle, circles a large hole in the ground. The landscape is sunburned, with shades of ochre and brown. Organized in chapters, with a soundtrack that’s equal parts Ennio Morricone and chanting Vikings, Sisu is a back-to-basics Nazi revenge flick inspired by Euro-westerns with an edge of Tarantino. The film is a pure genre exercise with very little dialogue and a plot driven mainly by one man’s refusal to die.

Not everyone will enjoy Sisu. It’s a movie without real subtext, and though it has big movie aspirations, it works within the limited budget range of non-American cinema. It does an excellent job with its bare resources. It uses the almost comic book-like framing to lure the audience into a world of heightened reality, where aesthetics and fundamental physics are secondary to spectacle. The movie is often silly and occasionally stirring; it’s a great dry run for filmmakers looking to stretch a budget and push a concept to its limit. 

The film primarily builds on the idea that people want to see Nazis die. Presented as boorish, ruthless and cowardly, the film’s Nazis are shown less as die-hard believers than flagrant, amoral opportunists. Unbeknownst to them, when they run into Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila) with a saddlebag full of gold by the side of the road, they’re facing a legendary soldier, who, if legends are to be believed, was considered an almost supernatural monster by the Soviet soldiers he massacred a few years prior. 

Aatami barely utters a word throughout the film. Jorma Tommila’s performance is reserved and firm, more physical than emotional. His face, with sunken cheeks, is a perfect battleground for the imagination. The film showcases his improbable physique, rippling with muscles and gnarly uprooted scars. His presence, domineering and silent, anchors the otherwise broad caricatures of the rest of the film. His quiet endurance and persistence grounds the film’s more absurd elements in a nearly convincing stoicism. 

The film would have worked better with even less, even with relatively limited dialogue. The voice work (notably in English) was iffy, and occasionally the recording felt a little canned. The dialogue, in general, is often too silly to be threatening. In a film that embraces (almost paradoxically) less is more and more is more, the balance of restraint was uneven overall. 

Yet, for its flaws and shallowness, the film is undeniably satisfying. Trying to figure out how each scene will unfold and how our protagonist can ever hope to survive is often pleasurable. Though laden with uneven special effects, the overall impression is painterly rather than naturalist, which helps sell much of the story. The movie’s third act, particularly as a second group of heroes enters the picture, offers a great comeuppance to one of the most doggish villains in recent memory. 

Sisu isn’t revolutionary cinema, but it’s great for a crowd. Running at around 90 solid minutes, it also doesn’t wear out its welcome, moving swiftly from one moment to another. In the past, it would have been a perfect B-movie, the kind of film that satisfies a little bloodlust but doesn’t necessarily linger around with weary, spiritual questions. Sometimes you want to see some Nazis be blown up, and in that regard, Sisu delivers. ■

Sisu (directed by Jalmari Helander)

Sisu opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, April 28.

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