In the plainlands of Ostrobothnia, Western Finland, a tradition prevails, according to which the first-born son inherits everything and the remaining offspring must fend for themselves. The law has been cast aside in many areas and groups of men, knife-wielding thugs, nicknamed ‘toughs’, control the fields. The blade rules the land. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE NORTH, directed by Jukka-Pekka Siili, had its international market premiere in Cannes 2012.
When I saw there was a Finnish ‘Western’ you know I had to have it. Ignore the attempts to market it as Once Upon a Time in the North. It’s based on a very real phenomenon of the knife-gangs who strong-armed folks in the sparsely inhabited west in the late 19th century. When you’re accustomed to the hail of bullets in modern Westerns, it’s a bit disconcerting to see someone whip out a knife with menace (and impossible not to think of Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid). But the knife fights are well done — in fact all the action is nicely done.
It’s weird seeing a western that’s all green rolling hills and birch forests. We’re accustomed to the plume of dust rising behind a rattling wagon. The folks mostly drive small two wheelers that look like the chariots Brigit or Cuchulain would have driven. There’s nothing remarkably new about the story told, but it’s told well. Older brother Esko Välitalo (Mikko Leppilampi) gets passed over for his younger brother Matti (Lauri Tilkanen) when their father makes his will. Matti is happy because it will allow him to ask for the hand of Aino Kantola (Pamela Tola).
But Esko is not a man to take this lying down; in fact, he’s the terror of the district with his gang of knife thugs. Things unfold more or less as you would expect, though Siili wrings every bit of drama out of the constant reversals for the two lovers. Esko wreaks havoc among just about everyone in the district in order to get everything his brother wants and Leppilampi fills the role with glee without ever becoming a caricature. Tilkanen keeps Matti from just being a cow-eyed sap and delightedly, Tola gets to do a lot as Aino despite keeping within historical restrictions because Finnish women have always been tough. I’d also say a word about Aku Hirviniemi who plays Kalle, Matti’s loyal friend. He manages to bring subtlety to the cajoling sidekick role, giving hims humour, as expected but also a kind of wounded vulnerability.
It’s not Sergio Leone, but it’s not really trying to be. See some beautiful countryside, enjoy traditional clothing (you know you want the wedding crown!) and keep your puukko close to hand.
See the roundup of overlooked gems over at Todd’s blog.