Eat your heart out Rod Lurie. Sure, you remade Straw Dogs but is your film in Danish and does it feature a lead performance from the singer of a Europop band? Yeah, I didn't think so.
I've already suggested as much but it's worth stating as bluntly as possible. Deliver Us From Evil is Straw Dogs for the Scandinavian set. Danish director Ole Bornedal alters elements of the original to drive home a message about xenophobia and our inner demons but the framework remains the same. He also trades in Peckinpah's rough-hewn aesthetic for a more polished one while attempting to deliver a similar level of ferocity during the bloody and brutal climax. I'm getting ahead of myself though, so let me just say that the entirety of Peckinpah's classic should be considered a spoiler for this film.
The film starts off with panache as a cheery narrator breaks the fourth wall and introduces us to the characters that will populate the proceedings. Johannes (Lasse Rimmer) and Lars (Jens Andersen) are brothers with radically different lives. Johannes, a successful lawyer, just moved back from the big city with his wife, Pernille (Lene Nystrom of Aqua fame), and children in tow. Lars, a thuggish truck driver, just ran over a sweet old lady, Anna (Lone Lindorff), and hid her body by the side of the road. As I said...radically different lives. To make matters worse, Anna was married to Ingvar (Mogens Pedersen), an ex-military type who runs the trucking company that Lars works for. In his haste to dodge the blame, Lars pins blame for the accident on a psychologically scarred Bosnian refugee, Alain (Bojan Navojec), with a traumatic past of his own. Needless to say, things aren't going to end well for anyone involved.
Even though it frequently echoes the structure and thematic push of Peckinpah's film, Deliver Us From Evil never feels like a boring retread or a desperate cash-grab. It pulses with a restless energy borne of director Bornedal's deep anger towards the casual racism that is apparently still part of rural Danish culture. To be fair, the vitriol splashes onto many an innocent character during the film's brutal climax but that just seems to be the cost of communicating Bornedal's viewpoint. He also has something to say about man being a barely civilized animal but that is still couched in terms of the class warfare that becomes quite literal in the final showdown.
Before all hell breaks loose, Bornedal does a great job of placing many flawed characters in close proximity to each other where they can bump heads. Lars may seem like the obvious villain of this piece since he instigates the whole mess. He seems okay with using his pregnant girlfriend (Pernille Vallentin) as a punching bag and brazenly flirts with his brother's wife in between drunken bouts of anger and self-loathing. And yet, he seems like a harmless gnat by the time Ingvar rips off his own mask of civility. When Ingvar goes after Alain with calculated rage during a siege on Johannes and Pernille's home, it becomes apparent that Anna had kept his demons contained with her love. With no one to keep his basest instincts in check, Ingvar turns into a bible-thumping single-minded force of destruction.
Across the fence, the 'good guys' have plenty of chinks in their own armor. Johannes, although jovial at first, clearly has an air of superiority about him. This arrogance casts a disturbing shadow on his third act transformation into a man of action. Even as he defends his family and Alain from Ingvar and his army of louts, it is quite clear that Johannes is actually enjoying himself at times. As self-appointed defender of the defenseless (Alain, Pernille and the kids), he brandishes a nail gun with seriousness but can't prevent a smile from playing on his lips. In comparison, Pernille's biggest sin is her desire for self-preservation even if it comes at the cost of Alain's safety. These are complex and conflicted characters. It is to Bornedal's credit that he extracts strong performances from every single member of the cast. Jens Andersen and Mogens Pedersen may get the showiest roles but Lene Nystrom shines with her heart breaking portrayal of Pernille.
If Bornedal has such a strong vision and the film is littered with so many splendid performances, you may be wondering why my rating doesn't reflect a resoundingly positive impression. For this I blame Bornedal and his inability to quit while he's ahead. The climax of the film is more than a bit messy and ultimately works against everything he's painstakingly built up until then. I should mention that I will dip into SPOILER territory here so I can clearly illustrate my point. Please skip ahead if you'd like to be spared some of the details.
(SPOILERS) So...the rape scene. It was the most controversial element of Peckinpah's film and it shows up here as well, except it is missing any sort of nuance. In Straw Dogs, the depraved act of cruelty told me something about Susan George's character due to her momentary ambivalence. It also indicated a clear shift of power between her attackers and by virtue of where it was placed in the film, gave the climax added weight. Bornedal makes the strange choice to include the scene of shameful violation at the very end of the film, well after he has made his central point and and fulfilled any thematic concerns. Perhaps it is meant to be seen as a redemptive moment but from my viewpoint it is just another bit of nastiness visited as punishment upon one of the film's more innocent characters. This also leads in to the infuriating final shot of the film which adds insult to injury with a flippant tone that practically ignores the psychological trauma that our leads have just suffered through. (END SPOILERS)
Although Bornedal starts off with the goal of communicating the poor treatment afforded to outsiders by petty and provincial minds, I feel like he gets a bit lost there at the end when his rage becomes unfocused and any amount of collateral damage to the film becomes acceptable. Perhaps others won't be as bothered by the film's final act, but in my eyes the damage is noticeable.
The movie was presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. The visuals have a desaturated and sort of bleached quality to them. They perfectly echo the sentiment that our characters are living in a world that hasn't been vibrant and cheerful in a very long time. Other than a slight bit of moiré, I didn't notice any major defects with the presentation.
The audio was presented in 5.1 Surround Sound and 2.0 Stereo Dolby Digital mixes. Both tracks were in Danish with English subtitles. I chose to view the film with the surround track and was pleased with the mix. It bubbles along with subtle background noises until it erupts during the vigorous finale. There are moments of quiet brutality in the film and the mix did a great job of maintaining the atmosphere without dropping out completely.
The main extra feature is a Making Of (26:39) piece that has Bornedal and the cast going into the themes that are explored in the film. Bornedal talks about the evil that is present in every individual and shares a few anecdotes about his rough childhood in Jutland. We get some insight on how a few of Jens Andersen's scenes were filmed along with a gushing assessment of his abilities by Lene Nystrom. The next two featurettes cover some of the same ground. The Theme (1:38) has the cast describing the film while The Characters: Jens Pernille and Lasse Lene (7:05) gives us time with both of the central couples as they dissect their on-screen relationships and what motivates their characters. A Trailer (2:38) closes out the extras.
Ole Bornedal's film employs the framework of Peckinpah's Straw Dogs but isn't the slavish remake that one would expect. This largely works to Bornedal's favor since he gets to exercise themes of xenophobia and primal evil that are important to him. The only major aspect of the film that doesn't succeed is the flawed climax which goes on for too long and ultimately adopts a tone that works against what came before it. This definitely lessens the film's overall impact but doesn't diminish the solid performances that inhabit it. Recommended.