When we first see Ulrik, he looks like a dead man walking.
As played by Stellan Skarsgard in Hans Petter Moland's A Somewhat Gentle Man, opening in limited release Friday (1/14/11), Ulrik is leaving prison after finishing a 12-year murder sentence, with little life left in his eyes. One of the guards, to be encouraging, advises him to look forward, not backward -- but when the prison gate slides open, what he's looking forward at is an unbroken flat snowscape with few distinguishing features.
His old boss and running buddy Jensen (Bjorn Floberg) catches up with him at their favorite diner, patting himself on the back for sending money to Ulrik's family while Ulrik was in jail. He offers Ulrik a cell-like room in a house owned by Jensen's sourpuss sister Karen Margrethe (Jorun Kjellsby). He gets Ulrik a gun, to eliminate the rat whose testimony put Ulrik in prison. He even gets Ulrik a job as a mechanic in a garage owned by a worrywart named Sven (Bjorn Sundquist). Sven only has two rules: Show up on time and stay away from the office secretary, Merete (Jannike Kruse).
Despite a relatively painless fresh start, Ulrik seems like a zombie: hulking, with a weak chin, thinning hair (pulled back in a ratty ponytail). They say that light cannot escape from the pull of a black hole; so it is with a smile and Ulrik's face.
Yet, in this subtle and deftly underplayed comedy, Ulrik slowly but surely plugs back in, overcoming obstacles in his way. Despite Sven's admonition, Ulrik casually engages Merete, simply by protecting her from her abusive ex-husband. He also develops perhaps the bleakest, funniest sex life in film history: a nightly bump from the bulldog-faced Karen Margrethe, whose idea of foreplay is to discard her underwear and lie down fully clothed on Ulrik's bed, next to where he sits eating dinner and watching TV, then commands him to get on top.
Indeed, Ulrik gets a couple of these carnal invitations (including one from his ex-wife). Usually, he has a look on his face that says, "Can I finish eating first?" Priorities, after all.
Eventually, Ulrik tracks down his now-grown son, whose girlfriend is expecting their first baby. Between his new relationship with Marete and his anticipation of his first grandson, Ulrik is feeling like, perhaps, he does indeed have a future. He feels good enough that he goes back to Jensen and tells him that he's changed his mind: He doesn't want to kill the rat after all. Which is when things start to crumble for him.
A Somewhat Gentle Man sits squarely on Skarsgard's slumped shoulders. The camera regularly examines his lumpish figure, his potato-like face, his small and porcine eyes. Skarsgard gives little away at first, beyond the occasional raised eyebrow at the madness around him that others seem to take for granted.
Skarsgard makes him guarded and controlled, someone used to the regimen of prison and unaccustomed to the freedom of being back in the world. He's not averse to varying his routine; he just doesn't trust it much.
Yet he gradually lets the light back in. Skarsgard shows us the slowly reawakened feelings that Ulrik initially distrusts, then begins to enjoy. But he also captures the moment when Ulrik remembers why he blocked out his emotions before: because feelings -- pleasure, hope, joy -- can be hurt, crushed, broken.
A Somewhat Gentle Man is a Scandinavian treat: a movie that reveals itself slowly, then goes places you didn't think it dared. Skarsgard, mostly a character actor in American films, proves once again that, in fact, he's a leading man of depth and nuance.