Fresh off a murder rap, stolid, aging gang member Ulrik (Stellan Skarsgård) spends his first minutes of freedom blankly observing a pair of nogoodniks as they pull a woman who just rear-ended them from her car and deposit her in a trash bin. The primary joke in A Somewhat Gentle Man is how little difference there is from the prison in which Ulrik spent the last 12 years and the overcast, grim Norwegian wasteland into which he’s emerged. Even his gloomy boarding house room could pass as a cell. True freedom, whatever that may be, may be permanently elusive, given the lofty sum he owes former boss Rune (Bjørn Floberg), who’s forcing him to enact revenge on the man who fingered him.
Truth is, Ulrik couldn’t be less enraged. As played by Skarsgård, an actor whose shtick is oft-boozy reticence, our hero would rather spend his time being fed and bedded by the gaggle of women who command him to satisfy certain needs, usually before he’s done eating.
Hans Petter Moland’s comedy unfolds in the austere deadpan common of Scandinavian art, but beware: Its wintry tone conceals an inner softie, waiting to ruin the fun. First Ulrik’s mordant run-in with his estranged wife leads to him reconnecting with the son raised to think he was dead. Then a coworker—the one who, upon learning of his homicide conviction, quickly pointed out he will be staying out of her pants—is soon inviting him into her pants. The dominoes fall from there, until what started out as a slightly slovenly imitation of Finnish deadpan master Aki Kaurismaki becomes a redemption saga so familiar you can set your watch to it.
Only Skarsgård manages the tonal transition. Initially he seems born to play a character with no expressions and little inner life. As Ulrik opens up so, improbably, does this famously withdrawn actor. Werner Herzog has spoken about how modern man is “starving for new images”; the sight of Skarsgård smiling, as he does with great occurrence in Man’s back end, counts.