Bag packed and ready to leave, Ulrik (Stellan Skarsgård) stands blankly in front of a prison gate, having just completed a 12-year sentence. A guard appears, offering him a bottle of wine and some parting advice: don't look back. Go forth with purpose and determination! Life is about to begin again! The gate opens, and Ulrik takes about four steps before turning around, with a vaguely helpless look on his face.
A Somewhat Gentle Man is a quiet, peculiar comedy, and Ulrik is the slow and steady center around which the movie forms its wry sense of humor. Crossing the street from the prison to a roadside cafe, the score (by Halfdan E) fills itself with loud, jaunty big-band music, punctuated by trumpets, as if the journey is no less than a party for a man like Ulrik. At the bar, he hooks up with his former employer, an aging crime boss named Jensen (Bjørn Floberg). Jensen gives Ulrik money, a place to stay (with a lonely, sexually aggressive landlord played by Jorunn Kjellsby), and a job (for a mechanic played by Bjørn Sundquist), and in return, Jensen is hoping that Ulrik will get revenge on Kenny (Henrik Mestad), the man who squealed and put put him in jail. Not surprisingly, Ulrik's feelings about this plan are...understated.
Ulrik's crime was a murder, carried out as retaliation for a personal affront, but nobody seems too concerned about it. In one scene, he visits his ex-wife Wenche (Kjersti Holmen), who comments mildly that Ulrik "ruined their lives." but not before she points out that she respected the killing in principle. Meanwhile, Jensen takes Ulrik to buy a gun, and the pair frequently spend their afternoons glumly tailing Kenny in Jensen's beat-up BMW. For Jensen, Kenny's death will be a relief, because his other men are aging and increasingly incompetent. "No man is stronger than his people," he says. "If his people are weak, he is weak." Still, Ulrik's interest appears to drift more to his estranged son Geir (Jan Gunnar Reise), who has a pregnant wife (Julia Bache-Wiig). Among his ex's possessions, Ulrik finds a picture of a fishing trip he took Geir on years before; Ulrik's face is cut out of the photo.
Skarsgård's performance is the very definition of low-key, with each thought scrolling across his slightly doughy face each time someone asks him a question. The landlord and his ex both offer him sex, and both times he takes a few more bites of his meal before committing. Like the title suggests, Ulrik would be content to watch game shows on his TV and do menial mechanic work forever, but life refuses to leave him alone. Merete, the secretary at his mechanic job grills him on jail: "Now you're supposed to be a changed man? I don't believe that people can change." Later, he breaks the arms of Merete's abusive ex when he bursts into the shop and starts hitting her. Noble, maybe, but still an act of violence.
Eventually, problems begin to build up thanks to Ulrik's mostly passive nature, and his hand is forced. A Somewhat Gentle Man is not a comedy of big laughs, but director Hans Petter Moland and screenwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson navigate a tricky set of circumstances with an understated humanity. Although the film could pack more of a punch (in particular, Jensen ought to be more threatening than he is), all of Ulrik's thinking pays off. Ulrik's boss at the garage tells him, "I believe in giving a man a second chance and even a third if he fucks up. A man is a human being, and fucking up is part of human nature." Ulrik knows he's past his third chance. Better not fuck up.
The DVD, Video, and Audio
Strand Releasing sent over a disc in a paper sleeve, so I can't grade the packaging or A/V, in case this is not final product. Hopefully it isn't, either, because the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation on this disc is both fuzzy (filled with jagged edges) and features burned-in English subtitles.
Trailers for other Strand Releases. The original theatrical trailer for A Somewhat Gentle Man is also included.
A Somewhat Gentle Man may be amusing to audiences with patience, but the disc itself, if it represents final copy, is lacking. The film itself earns a light recommendation, but the DVD is only a rental.
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