There was a time, about four decades ago, when Scandinavian films initiated a relaxing of otherwise strict U.S. censorship laws. They played in art house cinemas to grindhouse crowds and, their frank depictions of sex influenced the emerging battles over nudity and adult content. Now it appears that the West has returned the favor. Thanks to globalization, DVDs, and satellite TV, American imagery (more specifically, indie imagery) has worked its way into almost all foreign film.
Slim Susie is a beneficiary of this cinematic crosspollination. Our hero, Erik (Jonas Rimeika), leaves his small town when the local cinema fails to screen the last reel of Pulp Fiction (instead, the theater manager “explains” what happens). After three years in Stockholm, he’s forced to return when his little sister, Slim Susie (the sensational Tuva Novotny) goes missing.
In an extraordinary opening scene, Erik and friend Thirteen (Johan Andersson) appear in mid-flight. From what, we don’t know. When Erik is cornered by an imposing figure who demands “the whole story,” it’s time for the flashbacks. Within minutes, Slim Susie resembles that most David Lynchian of plots, a small town rife with hidden corruption. But instead of playing up the menace, director Ulf Malmros goes for the comic jugular. In part, this emerges in character “flips”: Susie turns out to be a drug-abusing rock groupie and the local video storeowner Gerd (Lena Dahlman) is a legendary crime boss. The only cop in town, Billy Davidson (Kjell Bergqvist), is more interested in covering up illegalities than solving them, while Grits the junkie (Björn Starrin) fancies himself the next camcorder auteur, that is, when he’s not making homemade wine out of the garbage under his kitchen table.
The film works these disparate individuals into an intricate storyline by way of a satisfyingly kinetic energy. Everyone and everything in Malmros and co-writer Petteri Nuottimaki’s universe has a backstory, from a fish-shaped pitcher to a standard-seeming drainpipe. While so much information can cause entertainment overload, the movie repays the attentive viewer. All the characters, all the circumstances, are equally instructive. This challenges our expectations, as a throwaway point comes back to haunt our hero or a seemingly noteworthy situation leads to near irrelevance.
It would be easy for a film as scattered as Slim Susie to lose its focus. And as it openly references films like Scarface, The Usual Suspects, and Reservoir Dogs, we remain on the lookout for possible implausibility in the storytelling. But Malmros delivers something stupendous, a film that leaves you positively giddy. He’s helped by the performers, too, especially the beautiful and brave Novotny and Rimeika, who, though he resembles a clued-in Jamie Kennedy, gives Erik a delicate sadness.
But it is Starrin, as Grits, who walks away with the movie outright. The character is the bridge between Erik and Susie’s naïveté and the sinister scandal they all face. Certainly, this joke of a junkie is an asshole, all unbridled Id leaking out of his dirty underpants (his recurrent costume). And yet he’s a dreamer, absorbing everything he sees from his rented videos and believing that, he too, will one day be a great filmmaker. Put the two together and you have someone to root for, though he doesn’t deserve it. While most of the characters here are flawed, we’re eager to see how their interwoven wantonness plays out in the end. Our interest is only intensified by Slim Susie‘s pop/punk soundtrack, one of the greatest in recent memory.
Some might dismiss this movie as copycat cinema at its most cynical. But all moviemaking has always been referential. But Slim Susie makes the case that imitation is not only flattery, but the most effective language of postmodern cinema. Like sampling is to hip-hop, the reverential allusion, if done well, becomes its own entity. And if it is nothing else, Slim Susie is one of a kind.