Sisu – Review

Sisu Aksel Hennie Jack DoolanSisu, as the title cards to Jalmari Helander’s film will tell you, is a word that cannot be translated into English. It means “a white knuckled form of courage and unimaginable determination”. Essentially, it’s a dogged determination to survive that makes the “bulldog spirit” look like a tea dance.

The film opens with a bloody overhead map, revealing the extent of Nazi extermination policies during World War Two. Finland, by 1944, has signed a pact with Russia, promising to hold off Hitler’s war machine. In return, the Nazis have taken a “scorched earth” approach to the Scandi country, leaving nothing and no one behind. Except … Aatami (Jorma Tommila). He appears to be a lonely farmer, clinging on to the last of his land and his country. Having struck upon an inordinate amount of gold, he embarks upon a journey to try and cash it all in (as futile as that sounds in the circumstances). There’s just one small problem – Bruno (Aksel Hennie) and his trigger-happy unit of German soldiers.

Playing very much into the trope of the taciturn hero, we don’t really hear much from Aatami but an early scene, wherein he takes a wash in a lake, reveals several bullet holes puncturing his body and a scar across his chest that would make you think he’s already been autopsied. He’s clearly no ordinary farmer and – as the first set piece of gloriously decadent violence occurs – the legend of who he really is is quickly revealed.

The film takes a Tarantino-esque approach, split into chapters with fun names likes “Scorched Earth” and “Kill ‘Em All”. It is a war film, ostensibly, but there are clear homages to Peckinpah Westerns, the aforementioned Tarantino and films like the John Wick franchise and Ilya Naishuller’s Nobody. However, this is no two dimensional killing machine. Helander’s script fleshes Aatami out, quickly explaining how he possesses the skills – and the Sisu – that he does.

Jorma Tommila gives an exceptionally physical lead performance. His hand to hand combat scenes are utterly thrilling. And, since he doesn’t say too much, most of his emotions are communicated through a look or a slight tensing of the fist. We can also see how much he relishes tormenting this particular unit of soldiers despite him never cracking a smile. Aksel Hennie is the perfect steely eyed villain. With his cap at a jaunty angle and his arm leaning casually against the tank gun, you know from the second you see him that you want him to meet a particularly gruesome end.

The brutality escalates at a rate of noughts – Helander packs a hell of a lot into the film’s 90 minute run time – but it is well executed (if you’ll pardon the pun) and extremely well-paced. As the film progresses, Aatami’s methods of dispatch become increasingly more inventive – doinking a landmine off a Nazi’s head or slitting another’s throat in a spectacular underwater sequence. Even watching the mysterious hero patch up his own wounds, which he does with matches and petrol no less, is enough to make you squirm.  Writing about it won’t do it justice – this is the kind of violence you need to see and hear. Every bone crunch, every innards rupture, every splatter of deep vermillion blood is just superb. This is, after all, a lead character who is willing to set himself on fire or impale himself just to “keep going”. Salla Yi-Luopa’s special effects and prosthetic make up artistry is flawless.

Sisu Jorma TommilaThe throat singing provides a guttural, masculine and raw soundtrack to Susi. Juri Seppä and Tuomas Wäinölä have done an excellent job with the music. Kjell Lagerroos’ cinematography shows us a Lapland devastated by war. The film is awash with dull greys, browns, blues and blacks. Everything – and everyone – has been swept into nothingness. The starkness of the landscape allows the action to have even more impact. Quite often, Aatami is the only person for miles and so, when he encounters Bruno’s unit, their presence dominates the screen.

It does seem odd that the dialogue, for the most part, is in English when the film’s title has no such translation. But since the landscape, the violence and the look in Aatami’s eyes do most of the talking, the film just about gets away with it.

A review truly won’t capture the spirit of Sisu. It is 90 minutes of balls to the wall chaos. The violence feels almost decadent, so glorious it is in both close up and wide shot. Aatami is an easy character to root for. Cinema loves a lone wolf character with nothing to lose – but I don’t think it’s ever seen anything like him. With good performances and fantastically unapologetic violence, Jalmari Helander’s World War Two film is surely set to become as legendary as the man himself.

Sisu is now showing in UK cinemas and streaming on selected US platforms.


Mary Munoz
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