SISU. Fury Road [Review]

A gold rush in Finland, killing Nazis, playing hide-and-seek in a minefield and more.

Mariusz Czernic

2 May 2023

Jorma Tommila in "Sisu" (2022)

The bleak, desolate landscape of Finnish Lapland looks like a post-apocalypse world, where the few surviving unfortunates struggle to survive. But these are “only” the aftermath of World War II, which hit the Finns first through the Soviets and then – Hitler’s army. As the war neared its end, there was little left to lose. Violence had become part of everyday life, and humans had become an endangered species. In these hopelessly difficult conditions, the last hope for the survivors is to believe in a legendary hero who has enough determination in him not to lay down his arms despite cruel adversity and the clear superiority of the enemy. In Finland, there is a special word to describe such an attitude – for “sisu” means exceptional steadfastness in pursuit of a goal, a determination so powerful that not even mortal wounds can knock you down.

The main character of the film is the war-weary Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila), a loner type, living life on his own terms. He doesn’t want to kill anymore, and in order to do so he decides to snatch something from nature – he becomes a gold prospector and discovers deposits of the precious ore. However, the nearest bank is 563 miles away, so his long trek begins, during which he encounters a detachment of retreating Wehrmacht soldiers. And this already means that his war isn’t over yet. A group of local women have fallen prey to the invaders, but when the occupiers learn that the old wanderer has found gold, their insatiability grows. The platoon commander, SS officer Bruno Helldorf (Aksel Hennie), is well aware that the Germans are already on the losing end and the only chance to sweeten the defeat is the saddlebags full of gold.

Sisu (2022) dir. by Jalmari Helander

Written and directed by Jalmari Helander, the film is a combination of brutal war cinema with survival and comic book action along Western lines. When discussing the film, John Rambo and John Wick are often invoked, and no doubt these are the right tropes when it comes to the creation of a one-of-a-kind hero who has become a living legend who cannot be defeated. In interviews, the director himself cited Rambo: First Blood (1982) as a major source of inspiration. However, the character of Korpi also has a prototype in reality – he is Finnish sniper Simo Häyhä called the White Death, a hero of the Winter War who killed hundreds of Russian soldiers. The violence contained in the film, however, is far from realism, clearly inspired by comic book aesthetics and splatter movies – this is most evident in the sequence on the minefield, where explosions are accompanied by flying limbs. The aesthetics of the frames are quite dirty, and the backdrop of the plot is wildlife captured in all its glory, so this world seems real. But within it, things happen that resemble spaghetti westerns with their silent heroes, overly graphic violence and the eternal conflict between civilization and nature.

At the same time, Sisu is an insanely impressive work, making the most of not only its budget of around €6 million, but – most importantly for the viewer – not wasting the potential contained in the script. In addition to the action on scorched earth, the director surprises with an underwater scene in which the surrounded hero cannot surface and tries to catch his breath with the help of… escaping air bubbles from the enemy’s cut throat. The ups and downs that became part of the turmoil of war are also brilliantly symbolized by the scene taking place at an altitude of 6,000 meters. Although it’s hard to find psychological nuances here, there’s something more behind the simple plot and banal characters, thanks in part to the perfectly chosen actors.

The two antagonists – Jorma Tommila and Aksel Hennie – don’t need words or psychological depth to make sense of their motivations and actions. Their faces pretty much say everything that needs to be said. There is only emptiness in the barren land, but emotions boil in people’s heads due to lack of control over the situation. Above all, fury comes to the fore, which leads to a vigorous fight, devoid of sentiment and subtlety. We get to know the characters not through long exposition or explanatory dialogues, but by their actions. The history adds the rest – after all, it’s known that the Nazis are evil through their irrational views and crimes against humanity, so the division between good and evil is obvious and unobjectionable.

Aksel Hennie & Jack Doolan in

Despite the fact that the production was made by Finns, it was decided to use an English-language dialogue track. Toward the end, admittedly, there are dialogues in Finnish, but the Germans speak in English. This throws off the rhythm a bit, moreover, Hitler’s army is also stripped of its nationality. They are referred to symbolically as “Nazis,” which is inconsistent compared to the fact that Russians are called “by name” here. This can be forgiven, since the primary purpose of the production in question is to entertain and provide a powerful experience. For this goal to be achieved, the motives of the characters are to be credible in the first place. Here the motivation is the desire to acquire gold – it gives strength and determination to the characters, gives hope for a decent life after the nightmare of war, but also poisons the mind with greed and disturbs the balance between healthy ambition and a destructive inclination to risk.

This is without a shadow of a doubt one of the most interesting action films of recent years. It’s superbly crafted in terms of direction, and the script intensifies the difficulties in front of the main character every now and then and thus doesn’t allow the viewer to get bored. When the hero hits a minefield, it seems that nothing more impressive can be offered. But this is only the beginning of the explosion of violence. With each passing minute the tension increases, and the energy and pace of the film doesn’t falter. Abandoning narrative ambitions, the filmmakers have given up a lot in the service of visual frenzy, perfectly playing with genre clichés. Sisu may not become as iconic as John Wick (2014), but it offers no less entertainment and, in terms of execution, is a world-class work.

Mariusz Czernic

Mariusz Czernic

Tries to popularize old, forgotten cinema. A lover of black crime stories, westerns, historical and samurai dramas, gothic horror movies as well as Italian and French genre cinema.

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