The appetite for Scandinavian thrillers both on television and at the cinema shows no sign of waning. Michael Noer’s coming-of-age tale of brotherhood, crime and violence takes full advantage of the popularity of its compatriot efforts. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t think such an underclass existed in Copenhagen. I naively thought there was no so such thing as a rough area within the city. So if you go to see Nordvest expecting chunky-knit jumpers, delicately falling snow and glimpses of The Little Mermaid, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Noer’s film is loud, gritty and relentless in its depiction of the harsh realities of life within a gang; a life of limited options.
Whilst the neat little apartments and brightly coloured mopeds featured within the nominative region of the city may not suggest abject poverty or slum-like conditions, most of the characters are small-time crooks committing whatever burglaries they can to make ends meet. Caspar (Gustav Dyekjær Giese) steals flat screen televisions and iPod docks for Jamal (Dulfi Al-Jabouri) in exchange for a few thousand krones at a time. He believes he is not getting paid enough money for his efforts because he is not an Arab. There is more than a hint of racial and cultural tensions between the Arab gangs and their Danish counterparts throughout, and outright brawling ensues several times. A mysterious text message from the sleazy drug-dealing pimp, Bjørn (a deliciously cold and callous performance from Roland Møller) soon plunges Caspar and his brother, Andy (Oscar Dyekjær Giese) into a world of guns, cocaine and prostitutes. A world neither of them are ready for.
The fact that real-brothers are playing onscreen siblings adds a heightened tension and emotional edge to this film. There are so many tender instances between the pair that sometimes it feels like you are intruding on personal family moments. Equally, when they fight it feels more real. Their performances, coupled with Noer’s direction, is what elevates the film beyond standard fare. The pair are perhaps blighted by their absent father and – despite her presence – their similarly absent mother who spends the whole film working strange hours or smoking cigarettes whilst watching television. She appears to know that what her sons are involved in but is more than happy to take the money as long as they don’t get into “too much trouble”. It is the age-old problem of having no role model or no one to care. All they have is each other, which makes it understandable why Bjørn’s offer of an endless supply of cocaine, alcohol and partying is so seductive. He makes a fuss over the brothers and gives them the attention they so obviously crave. Caspar acts out of a desire to provide for his family and give them a better standard of living, whilst Andy’s desperation to be like his brother sees him sucked in to a life he cannot possibly be ready for.
Møller’s portrayal of the brutal ‘businessman’ is captivating in its dangerousness. In an instant, he wrenches himself from calm to maniacal with a mere flicker of his eyes. He doesn’t even need to raise his voice to be threatening, which makes it much worse when he does. His performance is where a lot of the film’s tension stems from. His sporadic behaviour ensures that the nature of a scene can change in an instant, and there is a constant feeling of fear and an urge to protect the two brothers. People are a commodity to Bjørn – as seen with his prostitute who suddenly loses her good looks in gangland shooting – and the allegedly worldly brothers don’t appear to understand this.
The violence in the film is never glamorised – often a complaint with this genre – but is presented as the mindless escalation of gang feuds that it is. It is neither graphic nor lingering; simply the cost of desperately trying to escape one’s surroundings. The film is marked by shaky hand-held camerawork and dingy colours. Often, the brothers find themselves running away from trouble and the camera follows every breathless thump of trainers on pavement. Noer creates an almost documentary like sense. Their apartment is dark, tinged with yellow lighting and plain lack of daylight. The bar where the brother’s meet with friends is drenched in red lighting, cigarette smoke and more than a threat of violence. Bjørn’s house and nightclub are a heady mixture of darkness and thumping techno music. It is, at times, an unsettling sensory experience. Whilst the subject matter may not be anything new, the way Noer builds tension is almost unbearable. There were moments when I forgot to exhale. Particularly a scene at a children’s birthday party where the smiling faces, fairy party dresses and tinkling music feel like a sure sign something bad is going to happen. Noer doesn’t allow you to relax, therefore scenes of happiness seem to jar with the rest of the story. The lives of Bjørn’s prostitutes or drug runners doesn’t fit with images of joy or family. Reality is harsh and selfish.
Nordvest goes further than any other similar tales of gang violence and testosterone-based vanity in that – despite their actions – the brothers don’t ever come across as ruthless or simply bad. They clearly love each other and their mother and sister, and their desire to work for Bjørn is borne from their misplaced belief that money and material goods will fix their broken home. It is so easy to feel fearful or protective of them. So whilst the story of young boys caught up in gangs beyond their understanding is familiar, Noer and his excellent cast give it a fresh perspective.