As our blog continues to grow, I would like to start writing a semi-regular column (this description is far too kind; it would be better classified as sporadic) highlighting the work of actors that, for the most part, are largely underappreciated in American film culture. To kick things off in a grand fashion, let us discuss the criminally underrated Stellan Skarsgård.
I was first made aware of Skarsgård’s talents in the one-two gut punch of Breaking the Waves and Insomnia, released back to back in 1996 and 1997. His raw and haunting perfomances in both films launched him out of Norway and onto the global movie scene. At the end of 1997 when he showed up in Good Will Hunting as one of Will’s mentors, a professor of mathmatics, he turned in another solid performance, although this one would start a worrisome trend: American film would only see him as a viable option in supporting roles. Sometimes these films were excellent: Ronin and Dancer in the Dark. Sometimes underwelming as was Amistad and Timecode. And then sometimes, just sometimes, his films would hit the sweet spot of sublime ridiculousness, as in the case of Deep Blue Sea. But no matter the quality of the film,Skarsgård would turn in a performance that you could not take your eyes off of; an actor of great subtlety, Skarsgård can communicate more to an audience from a glance than most can with a Mamet-penned monologue.
To my delight, in 2010, he decided to return to Norway and take a lead role as a criminal named Ulrick, recently released from prison after serving a 12-year stint for murder. A Somewhat Gentle Man is a film that is light on plot and primarly exists as a character study; a comedy of observation and eccentric characters; think of it as a Norwegian version of the Coen Brother’s Fargo.
Skarsgård’s performance as Ulrik is a delightful slow burn, and his take on a recently released criminal trying to walk the straight a narrow is a welcome variation on a character that has become a cinematic staple since the days of Bogart, Robinson, and Cagney. His performance is void of the vanity that being a consumate charcter actor for the past 15 years brings; he plays the lead with a Eurotrash ponytail – something that would have been called into question even prior to his incarceration — and a sneer that gradually fades, giving way to stray bursts of light which come over his worn down visage as his lot in life continues to improve in the slightest of ways.
The director’s (Hans Petter Moland), along with his cinematographer (Philip Øgaard), greatest achievement is inventing a visual scheme that mirrors the gradual mood shifts of our protagonist. As Ulrik is being released from prison in the opening scene, the colors of the Norwegian landscape are muted, a depressing gray that fits with the character’s mental state. By the last shot of the movie, the clouds are slowing beginning to part, and beams of sunlight descend on our hero. Ulrik knows things are looking up, and thanks to Skarsgård’s performance and the efforts of the filmmaker’smise-en-scène, so does the audience.