Priest of Evil plays like a feature-length version of an episode of Law & Order: SVU, only grittier, gorier and in Finnish. Depending on your perspective this is either a great thing (a foreign genre movie…Yaay!) or an exercise in tedium (yet another serial killer flick…Yawn). My opinion lies somewhere in between. While I'm a sucker for procedurals and rather enjoy the serial killer genre, director Olli Saarela's film doesn't do a great job of integrating the two into a cohesive experience.
The film opens with Inspector Timo Harjunpää (Peter Franzén) of the Helsinki Violent Crimes Unit on one of the worst days of his life. When he gets stuck at work later than expected, he is delayed in picking up his daughter who has just attended a concert. This ends badly for everyone involved as she tries to walk home on her own but is attacked and killed by a lecherous thug. Harjunpää's wife, Elisa (Irina Björklund), partially blames him for their daughter's death. Feelings of guilt and anger eat away at their marriage while their other daughter, Paulina (Rosa Salomaa), is cast aside in neglect.
When we see Harjunpää two years later, his life is imploding around him while he struggles to do his job. These days that means tracking a killer (Sampo Sarkola) who has been pushing people in front of trains in the underground rail system. Working with his partner, Onerva Nykänen (Jenni Banerjee), he comes close on occasion but the murderer always stays tantalizingly out of reach. It doesn't help that Harjunpää is as distracted as can be. They caught his daughter's killer and put him behind bars but he managed to secure an unusually short sentence. With his release imminent, Harjunpää can't decide what he's going to do when he encounters the creep as a free man.
If it feels like I've given the subway killer plotline short shrift, I assure you the film doesn't do much better. Although there are a few murders along the way and we get to see cops chasing down leads to discover the killer's identity, the investigation is routinely set aside so we can focus on Harjunpää's anguish. The tension is palpable and Franzén's performance is certainly powerful but there's no denying the fact that the film's subplots keep stepping on each other instead of being complementary. The unintended result is that instead of playing out in parallel, one storyline is completely resolved before attending to the other.
Harjunpää's revenge against his daughter's killer has all the impact that you would expect from the emotionally charged material. Unfortunately, after that is tied up with a nice, neat bow there is the still the business of the subway killer to attend to. This is where the film falls down. As we come to understand the subway killer's motives, he starts to transform from an outright evildoer into an anti-hero (fine line there). His actions are still heinous but in a weird way morally justifiable; that is until the film's climax when his established characterization is cast aside in the name of exaggerated villainy. A completely gratuitous sexual assault is tossed in just to ramp up the grittiness ("Hmm, doesn't seem bleak enough. Let's just sprinkle some rape on that.") before the whole thing is resolved with standard-issue action movie heroics.
From what I understand, the film is based on a book by Finnish crime writer Matti Yrjänä Joensuu who wrote an entire series about Harjunpää and his crime fighting ways. Although I haven't read the book, everything I've read about it suggests that the story has undergone some major changes on its way to the screen. This may displease fans greatly but from the perspective of someone who came into the film with zero expectations, the final result is still a bit of a letdown. The setup promises an uncompromising crime drama. What we get is a character study with some half-hearted elements of a procedural tacked on. Harjunpää may be a riveting character on the page, but on screen he comes across as just another tortured cop with a heavy cross to bear (despite Franzén's best efforts). If that's the case, I'd rather just watch a few reruns with Benson and Stabler.