SISU (2023)

One-line review: Finnish True Grit. 

Sisu has the advantage (at least when I saw it) of being seen by an audience with no expectations, but then it delivers and delivers. It tries to get some credibility by informing us in the credits that it was edited in the same studio that made John Wick. But all this bashfulness vanishes when the movie begins; it is a self-assured work determined to tell its story on its terms. 

I remember Thomas Ventenberg, after the success of his Danish “Another Round,” ruefully musing about why his English movies didn’t do as well. Indian filmmaker Anurag Kashyap probably has the answer: he says a good film is grounded in its culture, not necessarily regional or linguistic, but even class or religion. Sisu is one such grounded film; despite its international appeal, it is an out-and-out Finnish film. The protagonist, Aaatami, is a feared assassin but does his job quietly and unfussily (in contrast with Sly in First Blood, writer-director Jalmari Helander’s inspiration for Sisu). He’s angry as hell, but it burns beneath his Stoic shell. Dividing the film into Tarantinoesque chapters (with funky fonts and music) didn’t do it for me, but Helander says he decided to keep it to bring some fun into the film. But despite this minor transgression, the film remains earthy.

The film is about a retired commando, the old and grizzly  Aatami Kopi (Jomma Tomilla and director Helander’s brother-in-law), attempting to start his life afresh after losing his family to the Nazis. He engages in some gold prospecting and gets lucky. As he is riding to the bank with his sizeable gold haul, with his little terrier hot on his heels, he is intercepted by a group of Nazi commandos led by Bruno Helldorf (Aksel Hennie). They are wreaking havoc on their way out of Finland, plundering everyone. The Nazis discover Aatami’s gold, and mayhem ensues; Aatami now only has one goal: to take his gold to the bank. Initially, the film doesn’t give us any background information on Aatami, and we worry about the old man’s ability to overcome the Nazis. But once we know he’s a feared Finnish assassin, who “refuses to die,” we heave a sigh of relief, sit back and enjoy the ride, waiting to see what Aatami throws at the Nazis. The film’s title, “sisu,” is a Finnish word with no English translation and refers to the extraordinary, inexplicable strength that allows you to keep going despite the odds, a quality Aatami has in plenty.  

Tomilla’s casting as Aatami was undoubtedly the most critical decision because he is in every frame but only has one speaking line. Tomilla carries the movie on his lined face; his physicality is quiet than ripped, his face stoic than stony; he proves that war is a mental game even when facing a machine gun. Intrigued by this film, I watched Helander’s delightful earlier movie, “ Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale,” also starring Tomilla, and was surprised at how expressive Tomilla’s face is. It was an excellent decision to cover up Tomilla’s face with a large beard in Sisu because, in some moments, he comes across as too animated, but those moments are thankfully few; the film works best when he’s stoic. 

The stunts are fresh and Finnish; the hero carrying an axe, being hung and surviving it, or the mother of all scenes of how Aatami breaths underwater. Though outlandish, the stunts seem totally in tune with Aatami’s nature, probably because it’s all done without fuss.  Even the climactic airplane scene, the most mainstream action scene in the film, seems fresh because it was shot without stunt doubles. 

The film treads on the dangerous territory of being kitschy with its chapter titles and the scene of the women prisoners escaping and marching with their guns, like in Reservoir Dogs. These scenes jar with the otherwise intense and almost meditative struggles of Aatami, but we care too much for him by now to let these minor slips derail us. Moreover, we get it that the crew wants some levity after putting up such a show for us. 

Helander is a master of efficient storytelling (even in his earlier film, Rare Exports); the various obstacles Aatami faces tie in seamlessly and don’t give the impression of being a showcase for his skills, which is what it is. The brainwave of describing him as someone “who refuses to die” makes all his improbable escapes believable. Another master stroke is deciding to give Aatami a dog: a small fluffy terrier. This little creature weaves a thread of tenderness throughout the film, but it is no ordinary dog, even if it has Sisu, and always finds a way to reunite with its master.  

Sisu’s ending is well deserved; we want Aatami never to have to lift a little finger for the rest of his life. While Sisu is Tomilla’s one-man show, his quiet strength is heightened by his counterpoint, his nemesis Bruno played by Aksel Hennie. Although Bruno is a one-dimensional evil character, Hennie infuses him with humanity and avoids making him a caricature. Hennie matches Aatami step by step with the exact level of menace. Little details like the young Nazi soldier (Onni Tomilla, Jorma’s son) paying homage to a seemingly dead Aatmi by taking his hat off and Bruno following suit are the delicious details that elevate Sisu from good to great.  

Sisu is a cinematic experience I have enjoyed watching twice on the big screen with other appreciative audience members.  Helander remembers being mocked for his ambitions to make a First Blood scale movie and relishes having the last laugh. It is safe to say that Sisu began with Helander’s Sisu.      

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