Is Jo Nebsø Scandinavian fiction’s Elmore Leonard?

Is Jo Nebsø Scandinavian fiction’s Elmore Leonard?

Adaptation of ‘Jackpot’ hangs out among the riff raff

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: Henrik Mestad as Solør and Arthur Berning as Billy Utomjordet in “Jackpot”; Rating: R, Grade: B-

I’ve spent the last few years investigating a specific niche subset of the criminal underworld: the seedy realm of Scandinavian crime fiction. It is much more distinct in its fashion than the splatter-focused crime scene explorations and Grand Guignol spectacles from the minds of twisted serial killers we’ve been inundated with on big screens (“The Silence of the Lambs,” “Se7en”) and small screens (any of the “CSI” iterations, “Hannibal”) or on the pages of popular fiction (James Patterson). To be fair, there’s a significant segment of this market – at least in print – that fearlessly departs from the standard modus operandi of the genre. Richard Price, George Pelacanos and Dennis Lehane managed to turn their more grounded take on everyday criminality into opportunities to shape the overarching narrative of David Simon’s landmark examination of Baltimore in the HBO series “The Wire.”

Of course, the undisputed godfather of the American criminal landscape, writ small, might have been Elmore Leonard. His small-time dealers, schemers and hustlers, rendered with a panorama of human foibles, occupy a seedy section of the crime beat in much the same way Stephen King has carved out his horror/suspense niche. The King comparison is apt also because Leonard’s source material has provided fodder for a strikingly diverse collection of filmed adaptations for film and television – although, in his case, rarely have the projects taken off either in terms of box office or ratings. Leonard’s world is too ambiguous, too morally gray for audiences conditioned to the “good versus evil” presentations spoon-fed to us on the regular. We long for white hats to save the day, or at least we’re willing to accept an anti-hero squarely on the road to redemption.

“Jackie Brown,” one of the best translations of Leonard’s work arrived courtesy of Quentin Tarantino and stands as my personal favorite of Tarantino’s directorial efforts because it is the most adult, assured take on the low-life, eschewing, in its realization of the relationship between the titular protagonist (Pam Grier) and the bail bondsman (Robert Forrester) who grows attached to her, the pyrotechnics of contemporary pop cultural references and offhand violence for a more thoughtful consideration of what it takes to survive the meanness of the streets. 

International bestselling author Jo Nesbø’s Scandinavian brand of criminality is now poised to test the film world. His walks on the wild side differ a bit from Leonard’s in that there’s a more obvious embrace of excess. “Headhunter,” which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival two years ago attracted attention in Hollywood, thanks to the upscale milieu of its characters and the glossier framing of its action set-pieces, seemingly ready-made for a big budget studio remake.

And so, it is curious to settle down to “Jackpot” another Nesbø conversion, which more closely aligns itself to the Tarantino mold of the 1990s, complete with its colorful cast of oddball lowlifes and its penchant for violent outbursts and hurried (harried) attempts to cover up a variety of bloody blunders. When you lie down among wild dogs, don’t be surprised when you wake up with fleas. The film, by Norwegian Magnus Martens, is less canny in its twisted structure than merely withholding of key information, something that plays out differently on the page. On screen, you end up with narrative and character chasms that must be crossed, which are impediments because audiences don’t want to feel like they’ve been overly manipulated from on high. If the characters outsmart us, so be it, but don’t pull the rug out from under us.

Nesbø’s fiction doesn’t do that, so that means thus far the problem has been with the teams adapting the work, but it could also highlight a need for a tighter focus on the little guys Leonard so loved. They – and, by extension, Leonard – never sought to twist us up in knots. They were merely trying to unravel the tangled threads of their own lives.

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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