Fantasia 2012: ‘Black’s Game’ Makes Unfamiliar Moves
Written by Óskar Thór Axelsson, based on the novel Svartur á leik by Stefán Máni
Directed by Óskar Thór Axelsson
It would be easy to describe dismiss Black’s Game as an Icelandic crime thriller, but that would be short changing this stylish film that zags every time you expect it to zig, making choices that make sense but are completely opposite to the choices made in other, similar crime films.
As a prime example, in the middle of the film, the crime gang performs a daring daylight bank robbery. When they count up their ill-gotten gains, the co-leader of the gang, Tóti (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) complains that they make more money in one day selling drugs with much less risk and without doing the dirty (criminal) work themselves. In most films, drugs are what topples a successful criminal empire; in Black’s Game, drugs are the criminal empire that can only be toppled by other crimes.
The time is 1999; our viewpoint character is Stebbi (Thor Kristjansson). After spending the night in the Reykjavic drunk tank after getting into a drunken night-club brawl, Stebbi needs a good lawyer to keep from spending five years in jail for aggravated assault. Luckily, he runs into childhood friend Tóti as both men leave the jail. Tóti offers to get Stebbi legal help from the best lawyer in Iceland, if Stebbi does him a favour.
It’s the familiar story of the journey to hell and damnation beginning with a single step, in this case searching the abandoned apartment of Tóti’s jailed “botanist” to find the marijuana concealed within. What makes this journey distinct is the pep talk that Tóti gives Stebbi before sending him on his way, destined to help Stebbi release his inner psycho. What Tóti does not expect is how successful his pep talk will be: not only does Stebbi find the drugs, but when he is jumped by a rival drug seeker, Stebbi goes from endangered victim to Psycho Stebbi like a rabbit becoming a lion. Tóti arrives on the scene just in time to save the life of the drug seeker, later telling Stebbi that he nearly killed the muscle of the biggest drug dealer in Iceland, rather like an Irish street thug getting the better of Frank Nitti in 1928 Chicago.
With Psycho Stebbi at his side, Tóti forms an alliance with the truly psychotic Bruno (Damon Younger) to solve the problem of how to smuggle drugs into Iceland, building a drug empire like assembling a wooden ship in a bottle. Bruno and Stebbi form an antagonistic relationship. Bruno has no respect for Psycho Stebbi, viewing the nickname as one of Tóti’s jokes. Stebbi, in turn, is appalled at Bruno’s constant state of violence, seeing himself without an on/off switch.
The gang’s chief salesmanwoman is icy blonde party girl Dagný (María Birta). The traditional drug crime thriller has the gang disintegrate in jealousy over the girl. While Dagný is the catalyst for betrayal and disintegration, it is not the way that one would expect. Dagný can’t cause jealousy, belonging simultaneously to all and to none. Instead Dagný either purposely or accidentally acts as the catalyst to a shocking rape. An almost purely sexual creature, Dagný is capable of flirting by eye contact with the rape victim, despite being at that very moment the centerpiece of a massive drug-fuelled orgy.
Black’s Game also has an interesting commentary on what money can buy in the sealed society of Iceland. The legal system is for sale, but reliable cell phones can’t be had for love or money. Even the police can’t afford the technological toys common to modern crime thrillers. Instead of wiring their rats for sound, they just have them go into meetings with their cell phones turned on, listening in through the open line.
Black’s Game biggest weakness is a slow middle that defuses the crackling energy of its ferocious opening and closing. By the time Psycho Stebbi reminds us how he earned his nickname in the film’s climax, we have almost forgotten that Tóti was not joking, just stating the facts with a smile.