Somewhere along the path of film history, we crossed a line. What was once horrifying to us became familiar. The things we might have dreaded to see became the things we longed to see. Images that once made us cringe became images capable of sparking laughter. I’m not sure it is a bad thing that this evolution has taken place, but I can say that I have evolved with the rest of the film community, to the point where I can take delight in the gruesome mayhem that takes place in a film like “SISU”. This is a movie that revels in the brutality it shows on screen. We root for the Nazis to get the treatment they so richly deserve in the films set up. The hero has to say nothing, and we are still on his side.
When I was ten years old, my big brother took me to see “Bullitt” with Steve McQueen. Everybody remembers the car chase, including me, but at the time, the scene that most impacted my young psyche was the murder of the witness using a shotgun, close up. The body slamming the wall and then slipping down with blood stains on the wall was my first exposure to real screen violence that was not the old western shoot’em up with guys clutching their stomachs and falling to the ground. This was real, and it was traumatic. Even though “The Wild Bunch” came out the next year, I did not see it until 1971, and the violence there was balletic, terrifying and in slow motion. A few years later, I saw an Italian Western called “Cutthroats Nine” and the violence there was also over the top and disturbing. Between 1975 and and the end of the century, we started accepting extreme violence as being humorous. Horror movies may have started that trend, I know that “Evil Dead II” made light of chainsawing people in a way that was vastly different than that scene in “Scarface” in the bathroom. As video games became more widely played and the visuals became more extreme, it seems that we started accepting dismemberment as equally funny as a Three Stooges poke in the eye. The over the top nature of the violence makes it more palpable. When a bad pun or a smart ass comment from the hero goes along with the visual, it is easy to laugh off. “Sisu” features violence that when similar images appeared in “Saving Private Ryan”, they provoked gasps and weeping, here they provoke guffaws.
I suppose what I am trying to do is justify my glee at the movie I saw last night. When body parts explode across the screen, and people are disemboweled, why am I laughing? The answer must be that I have gotten use to some of it, and the film makers have found a tone in depicting it that says it is safe to do so. A landmine blowing someone to pieces should not be funny, but when it is Nazis, who are war criminals, and the soldiers who get exploded were being used as human mine sweepers, our expectations are different. Then, on top of that, add a stylized moment like a foot, spinning through the air and landing at the feet of the next soldier, suddenly things are not grim, they are amusing. All of this is in way of saying, I was immensely amused by “Sisu”. The hero, Aatami, has no dialogue except for the very last lines of the film. He is stoically determined to achieve his objective, which is sort of what the title of the film is based on. The IMDB summary puts it this way: “what sisu means: a white-knuckled form of courage and unimaginable determination in the face of overwhelming odds.” You have a sense of what is coming.
The stylized violence of the John Wick films, is similar to what you get here, but there are important differences. John Wick is mostly efficient and detached, his martial arts style of killing is almost like watching dancing. Aatami, is not as graceful but he is just as efficient. His killing is brutal but not poetic at all. When he is stabbing someone, it is forceful, repeated and draws a lot of blood which covers him as he continues to fight for what is right. The pickaxe that he carries is like an emblem of the kind of brutality we are going to see. This is not Keanu in a bullet proof suit using elegant handguns, this is a commando, weathered by the climate and years of war, pushing himself past human limits. Of course some moments are not particularly believable, but that will not diminish the satisfaction we get as he presses on.
“Sisu” is set in Finland, and the actors are all from that region. Jorma Tommila plays the lead, and the only thing I saw him in before this was “Rare Exports”. I know there was at least one other cast member from that film as well. Be assured, most of those characters not played by Tommila, will not be back for a sequel. The pieces of the soldiers that screwed with Aatami, are strewn all over the tundra of Lapland. The music score is just as bruising and powerful as the film’s hero is. I was intimidated just hearing the notes. I saw this in a Dolby Theater, and the sound design was terrific. The director, Jalmari Helander, was also responsible for “Rare Exports”, a film that does have some of the same tone as this.
So following in the long line of “Evil Dead Bruce Campbell Versions”, most of the films of Guy Ritchie and Matthew Vaughn, and Quentin Tarantino’s list of bloody revenge films, “Sisui” delivers the violent, brutal humor, that we have been conditioning ourselves to accept. I’m certainly glad I did accept it, although I may still worry a bit about humanity in general.