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“A typical Icelandic murder,” proclaims one investigating cop early on in Jar City, “messy and pointless.” Whilst the killing of a lonely old man named Holberg with an ashtray does appear that way at first, it soon becomes apparent this is the tip of a complicated and far-reaching case.

Director Baltasar Kormákur’s Jar City, adapted from the novel by Arnaldur Indriðason, is one of the biggest films in Iceland’s history. It also established a strong track record on the festival circuit, including the 2008 New Zealand film festival.

Although boasting a relatively complex plot, the true strength of the film lies in its setting. Iceland is presented as a desolate, cold place, populated by square buildings of grey stone and deserted open roads. The small population of around 300,000 lends itself to other unusual aspects; every character is referred to almost exclusively by their first name only, and a (real life) project to catalogue the DNA of the entire country forms a key subplot.

Kormákur highlights the dreary nature of the surrounds by using lots of distant shots. The colours are heavily desaturated and often tinted blue to add to the sense of cold. Even Ingvar E. Sigurðsson as chief investigator Erlendur has a world-weariness that he carries through every scene.

The somber visuals complement perfectly a tale of past evils creating a chain of death and sadness as Erlendur tries to find the connection between the death of Holberg and that of a little girl who succumbed to a brain tumour nearly thirty years previous. Along the way he has to deal with imprisoned psychos, a partner going door-knocking to ask old ladies if they have ever been raped and his own daughter spinning out of control with sex and drugs.

Jar City is a low-key, solid crime drama with an undercurrent of social commentary, elevated beyond average by superb cinematography and an elegance in style. Recommended.

DIRECTOR(S): Baltasar Kormákur | COUNTRY: Iceland | YEAR 2006 | DISTRIBUTOR(S): Madman Entertainment | RUNNING TIME: 93 minutes | ASPECT RATIO: 16:9 Anamorphic | REGION: 4 | DISCS: 1

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