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TIFF 2022: The Gory, Darkly Comic Sisu Is Finnish John Wick

Powered by the love of movies and a lot of caffeine, we bring you dispatches from the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)
TIFF 2022: The Gory, Darkly Comic Sisu Is Finnish John Wick
  • Gayle Sequeira

  • Film Companion

Last Updated: 05.52 AM, Sep 13, 2022

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Director: Jalmari Helander
Writer: Jalmari Helander
Cast: Mimosa Willamo, Aksel Hennie, Jack Doolan, Jorma Tommila

At first, Sisu is a patchwork quilt of movies you’ve seen before. Its nondescript, Nobody-esque (2021) protagonist engages in the gleeful Nazi-killing mayhem that’s reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino, while being exalted to the mythic status of a John Wick (in a cheeky counter to the franchise, the dog even survives this time). And yet somewhere between writer-director Jalmari Helander’s evocative imagery, balletic camera movements and skill at blurring the line between combat sequence and physical comedy, this Finnish film spins a new yarn with well-worn threads. Old tropes are imbued with fresh blood, even as litres of it are spilled, sloshed and splattered across the screen.

It’s 1944 and the elderly Korpi (Jorma Tommila) is digging for gold in the Lapland wilderness that stretches on for miles but still can’t put enough distance between him and World War II. Nazi planes still soar overhead, even as his eyes remain firmly fixed on the ground. It’s only a matter of time before German soldiers discover his haul and attempt to seize it for themselves, at which point the film flips the hunter-hunted script in a series of increasingly inventive, deranged and gory setpieces. Korpi, revealed to be a former “one-man death squad”, makes good on that promise again and again. And again. And again. 

The initial wide shots of the lush landscape gradually prompt the realisation that it contains no place to hide, upping the stakes. It also sets up thrilling fights in which Korpi uses his knowledge of the natural terrain to his advantage – in a sequence that evokes Jaws (1975), Nazis sailing across a river disappear beneath the water in quick succession and reappear as bright red tints on the surface. Helander delights in squeezing his protagonist into tight spots, narratively and visually, propelling him towards the path of most resistance in search of an exit.

 These bursts of action are punctuated by to-the-point intertitles such as ‘The Gold’ and ‘The Nazis’ that let audiences know exactly what the focus of each chapter is. Despite all its frenetic energy, however, vast stretches of the film play out with sparse to no dialogue. The silences are ominous, not only sustaining the air of anticipation but also calling attention to the intermittent use of sound, such as the quickening clop-clop of Korpi’s horse’s hooves as it passes rows of men strung up and left to die by the Nazis. Visual flourishes breathe life into an otherwise straightforward narrative. Korpi’s discovery of the gold deposits is framed like an act of worship, the warm light of the metal reflected on his face, his look of utter reverence, a choral score. 

Sisu is 90 minutes of a good time, zipping by even as its action grows more outrageous, and its narrative detours don’t always mesh well. A barebones story padded with countless references to other films would be a tough sell for any other movie. But by the time Sisu hurtles to its (literal) earth-shattering climax, the sheer audacity by which it operates makes it worth the price of admission.

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