FilmSpace: The Death of Stalin; The Snowman; The Ritual

CommonSpace film critic Scott Wilson takes a look at the films of the moment

THERE’S A LOT OF BLOODSHED in this week’s FilmSpace as political schemers knock folk off, a murderer is loose in Oslo, and something hunts Rafe Spall in the woods...

The Death of Stalin – ★★★★☆

Armando Iannucci is an auteur. The Thick Of It is unrivalled in the British comedy canon, and Veep continues to be adorned with praise and awards with each passing season. He has this ability to hone in on the absolute silliness of it all and make the most pressing urgencies absurd, comic, and typical. Malcolm Tucker, his most famous creation, is as great as he is because he’s both a political powerhouse and an everyday figure of frustration.

Iannucci’s UK and American shows point the finger at, and offer some relief from, the ridiculousness of modern politics, but The Death of Stalin looks to Stalin’s death in 1953, something far less familiar. Based on the graphic novel of the same name, Iannucci has expressed his own surprise at just how true to life this story is, as Stalin’s death led to a power struggle that’s so overblown it lends itself so well to comedy.

It’s that haplessness and humanity that Iannucci marries so well elsewhere that works here, too.

At the heart of the film is this serious business of political nastiness. People are dispatched via hit lists, and the documented power grab is not without its share of bloodshed and scheming. Simon Russell Beale’s Beria is at times slippery and other times sympathetic. No one has a handle on him or his actions, which range from heroic to selfishly domineering.

But it never stops being funny. Jeffrey Tambor’s Malenkov looks sullen; so utterly out of depth he is to be left in charge of the Soviet Union. Jason Isaacs (hello!) storms in with a northern accent, full of pomp and bravado, like a hard man let loose in the upper echelons of the political sphere.

It’s that haplessness and humanity that Iannucci marries so well elsewhere that works here, too. Despite missing his work on contemporary politics, The Death of Stalin allows the world to laugh at a historical time of unrest, which in itself is a relief. One of the year’s funniest films with an engrossing and scheming central plot.

The Snowman – ★★★☆☆

Cinema is no stranger to book adaptions, but often, sensibly so, those adaptions begin with the first entry in a series. The Snowman marks a radical departure from this tried and tested method as part of the Harry Hole series of books by Jo Nesbø, in which it is the seventh of a current 11.

It’s no wonder it’s a little disorientating. Michael Fassbender’s detective Harry Hole is a fully fleshed out character on the page, but here he’s a Scandi noir trope of a man constantly drunk and unable to sleep. Unresolved plot threads don’t so much hang in the background as they are aggressively ignored, presumably part of something greater in the source material, or director Tomas Alfredson had no idea how to round them up.

A murderer is killing women, and Fassbender’s Harry teams up with Rebecca Ferguson’s Katrine Bratt, another detective who has just moved to Oslo from Bergen, to get to the bottom of it. Seemingly provoked by the falling snow, the murderer leaves snowmen outside the homes of those they target, and sends child-like messages to investigators on their tail.

Scandi noir is patient and meticulous, and The Snowman can’t afford to be anything but those things.

Alfredson has an impressive directing catalogue, including Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the incredible Let The Right One In. He’s at his best when letting what’s on screen do the work; Let The Right One In is as spellbinding as it is because of the space in which it happens filling in the gaps between its young outcasts. When the detectives are working in wide open and empty spaces, The Snowman feels like it’s doing something different.

But when it’s in procedural mode – most of the time, then – it pales in comparison to its peers. In cinema, it is no The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. In television, it is no Forbrydelsen (The Killing) or Broen/Bron (The Bridge). Scandi noir is patient and meticulous, and The Snowman can’t afford to be anything but those things. It slips up too many times, doing a disservice to the necessary red herrings and the relationships between characters, something which the film hinges on and pays little mind to when it really matters.

At times it’s beautiful – no one knows how to show snow on screen like Alfredson – and leans towards saying something about misogyny within the family unit, but it’s ultimately dampened by its genre-mates’ superior attention to detail and pacing.

The Ritual – ★★★☆☆

Most of the horror films released in the last few years all came from the one place: a studio called Blumhouse. Its line-up is a who’s who of films that have spooked audiences since 2009, starting with the impressive Paranormal Activity. It’s done a lot for genre cinema, but its dominance of the scene has led to repetition and familiarity, not only in plot but mood, pacing, and tone.

The Ritual benefits from being a Blumhouse-free production. Its scares are entry-level on the jump-o-meter, but its stripped back premise and lovable protagonists make for a refreshing watch of a film that stands out from the pack.

Rafe Spall leads a gang of four on a lads holiday hiking in Sweden. His Luke was present at the murder of their fifth member, during which he hid away and made no attempt to save their friend. The guilt and shame plagues him, and some of his friends harbour unresolved feelings towards his inaction.

After one of the squad injures their knee, cutting through the forest to save time becomes the most appealing option, but creaky shacks, skinned carcasses, and a monstrous stalker all lurk in the woods.

Like The Blair Witch Project and Trollhunter, it removes the outside world, and leaves just the film’s heroes and some menacing foe.

Their banter is British and jovial, and they act like real people, too – on more than one occasion, the characters walk in the opposite direction of certain terror instead of venturing into the murderous dark with naïve expectations. It means when the scares start, sympathy is earned; they made all the right steps.

Without the funds of a production powerhouse, the natural environment becomes the horror. Each tracking shot of the forest gives it its own characterisation. The leaves rustling becomes as malevolent as distant growling. When it’s time for some well-spent close ups of evil, it’s a well-teased money shot.

The Ritual isn’t the best horror of the year, but it’s fresh, has an affable bunch of blokes at the centre of it, and knows how to make the most of its limitations. Like The Blair Witch Project and Trollhunter, it removes the outside world, and leaves just the film’s heroes and some menacing foe. What better recipe is there?

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