Sisu, from director Jalmari Helander, debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival at Midnight Madness in 2022. For anyone not familiar with Midnight Madness, the energy is quite different from the regular festival. Audiences will clap along to the music in the ubiquitous ads of the festival and the typical “Argh!” during the obligatory warning against piracy is louder than at the regular screenings. Typically, genre features that play well for enthusiastic cinephiles are programmed during this time slot, and Sisu, about a Finnish gold miner who has to fend off Nazis as he treks across the wilderness to cash in his find, fits the bill perfectly with its over-the-top violence and gratifying mutilation of Fascists.
Helander became known to international audiences with Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, his twisted take on the Santa Claus myth where “Santas” are actually inhuman creatures. In Sisu, Helander imagines rural Finland as the Wild West, a seemingly barren, lawless place. It is set in the twilight of WWII when the Nazis decided to take a slash and burn strategy while getting the hell out of Finland. Jorma Tommila plays the solitary miner Aatami with gruff stoicism and singular determination. Of course, when encountering retreating Nazis looking for an easy payday interfere with Aatami’s newly found payload, he becomes a killing machine of alarming efficiency and brutality. It turns out that he was a feared soldier in the Finnish army known as Koschei, meaning the Immortal.
Despite some story detours such as the truckful of women that Aatami saves, not entirely willingly, the premise is simple – Nazis steal man’s gold, man kills Nazis to get his gold back. What sets Sisu apart is the sheer inventiveness of the violence and the dark humor that stems from it. For most of the film, Aatami is on his own against 30 or so armed Nazis so seeing him use all of his considerable wits to stay alive and to protect his gold is engrossing. Nazi bodies are mere canvases for all kinds of graphic violence. A scene where the Nazis must trace their own steps over a whole slew of mines they had planted as they were retreating is full of delicious irony as one Nazi grunt after another is pushed into the field like so many pawns.
Tommila is the key to making all of this gratuitous violence work. He plays Aatami not really as a reluctant antihero but more like a pissed-off grumpy man who just wants to be left alone. ‘Sisu’ is an untranslatable Finnish word that means roughly white-hot rage, yet Aatami’s anger is strangely free from too much emotional baggage. If you squint, you could perhaps justify Aatami’s anger as the atrocities of war weighing down on him, but Helander doesn’t seem to be overly concerned with making his protagonist emotionally complex. In fact, Aatami’s relative lack of emotional investment in some of his most graphic and creative kills (he literally throws a mine at someone) gives this excessive film the grounding that it needs.
There isn’t much substance to Sisu, but it doesn’t really need it. Helander’s sharp direction and clear relishing of really sticking it to the Fascists is almost pure in its glee. Sisu is if you took the best of the war movies that border on pulp (The Dirty Dozen, Inglourious Basterds) and took out all that annoying dialogue and character development. It more than delivers on its promise of visceral thrills.
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