As part of our coverage of the 47th annual Toronto International Film Festival, Meg Shields reviews Jalmari Helander’s first feature in eight years, ‘Sisu,’ starring Jorma Tommila and Aksel Hennie. Follow along with more coverage in our Toronto International Film Festival archives.
In his introductory remarks, Jalmari Helander described Sisu as the best thing he’s ever done. And indeed, the eight-year gap between Big Game and the Finnish director’s latest was well worth the wait. Sisu even surpasses Helander’s Christmas horror cult fave, Rare Exports, which as a fan of that film, is saying something.
Sisu takes place in 1944 in the Lapland region of northern Finland. The beautiful but barren tundra offers few places to run (and even fewer to hide) from the nazi hordes that have been ordered to pull out of the country. While swastika-emblazoned tanks grind along, deploying scorched earth tactics as they go, a lone man (Jorma Tommila), our hero Aatami Korpi, pans for gold, unbothered if not totally disinterested in the global warfare playing out around him. By chance and skill, Korpi discovers a massive underground vein of untold riches. Loading up his saddlebags with heaps and heaps of glittering ore, Korpi sets off on his journey into town.
Along the way, the prospector passes by a squad of nazis led by the comically Teutonic Obersturmführer Bruno Helldorf (Aksel Hennie). Seeing the riches as their last chance to escape the hangman’s noose awaiting them in Berlin, the soldiers set about killing what is surely easy, geriatric prey. Unfortunately for the nazis and very fortunately for us, Korpi is actually a one-man death squad: a killer of national renown who isn’t unkillable but just plain refuses to die. Thus begins a truly unfair fight between the most deadly and stubborn man of all time and a group of greedy soldiers who quickly realize that they are royally and irreversibly screwed.
When Mad Max: Fury Road came out, many (myself included) were inclined to compare the film’s reliance on visual storytelling and action setpieces over dialogue to silent cinema. Sisu takes the “fewer words, more action” ethos to a whole other level. Nobody speaks in this 90-minute film until the forty-minute mark. Our grizzled protagonist barely even utters a grunt throughout the film’s entire runtime. Instead, Sisu weaponizes a fiendishly visceral combination of sound design and visual storytelling. We only need one glimpse at Korpi’s crudely-healed scars (one of which stretches from his clavicle to his groin) to get a sense of what punishment this madman is capable of enduring.
The exquisite clarity of crunching bones, furious machinery, and improvised weaponry say much, much more than any horrified exclamation ever could (e.g. “oh my god, is that a landmine sailing through the air?” or “how in gods name is he staying underwater for so long, we better send more men down!). Likewise, Juri Seppä and Tuomas Wäinölä’s score, which relies heavily on throat singing and guttural percussion, makes plain what kind of movie we’re in and what the vibe is.
While Sisu could arguably trim some fat here and there, the film’s general trajectory (barrelling forward from one carnage-filled set piece to the next) is a delightful one. Like many of its peers — including First Blood, whose influence is undeniable — Sisu is tasked with continuously raising the stakes and scale of its confrontations. Just when you think that the film’s hook (namely: Korpi’s shocking refusal to stay down) has run out of steam, Helander proves you wrong. I desperately want to describe some of these setpieces to you, but like most things, these creative and gut-splattered discoveries are best experienced firsthand.
Apart from one unnecessary homophobic joke, which is a real shame in a film with such little dialogue, and some minor pacing issues (my kingdom for a 70-minute movie!), Sisu is a roaring success. Even some of the wonkier digital VFX feel at home in a film that never takes itself too seriously. When the third act happens in all of its ridiculous glory, photorealistic rendering is kind of beside the point. To boot, the vast majority of Sisu’s effects work is practical. The makeup team, led by Salla Yli-Luopa, has done an excellent job at making every bullet hole, puncture wound, and dermal tear feel visceral and painful; an important job when the film hinges on Korpi’s relentless ability to push past the hurt to get what’s his.
Helander has effectively cross-pollinated a number of genre mainstays, from Sergio Leone to no-budget 1980s survivalism, with his own Finnish flair. Relentlessly brutal and unexpectedly hilarious, Sisu is a hoot, a holler, and the most fun you can have watching Nazis get absolutely destroyed by a gold-hunting ex-military grandpa.