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Review: The Absent One (2014, Denmark)


Thrillers from Scandinavia have carved themselves a dark image, introducing us to worlds of depravity and violence that sit uncomfortably close to home thematically. Thrillers such as Pusher and Headhunters have shown an acute awareness to realise fully a sense of such perversion with a combination of dramatic sensibility paired with a unsettling character portrayed.

The Absent One rings a familiar tone to the aforementioned films, a layered, winding mystery charting a twenty year old case of two murdered siblings as it’s reopened following the death of the victim’s father. Officer Carl Mørck, who is given the case to look at by the father before his untimely death makes the Hollywood hardboiled detective look positively joyous. Estranged from his family (He doesn’t even realise his own son is staying round his house until he is woken up by him), driven by a strangely motivated sense of justice, and ridiculously dedicated to his job; it would be easy to read his traits as a caricaturish hodgepodge of the classical antihero cop model, but Nikolaj Lie Kaas brings the role to ground, playing Mørck as an unhinged centrepiece in an increasingly malevolent uncovering of rape, molestation and murder.
Accompanied by his steadfast assistant-cum-minder, Assad (Fares Fares), the pair unravel the case of the murders as it extends into a wider series of related events revolving around the happenings at a discreet boarding school. The chemistry between the two is strong, even when the film itself verges into a more abstract territory towards the end that threatens it’s grittiness. There is no questioning director Mikkel Nørgaard’s ability to pace dramatic weight without compromising its expository glut.
For the first two acts of the film, it’s a well paced ticker in the vein of fellow Danish thriller A Highjacking, a film that acutely understood the art of the payoff in an intense environment.
It is the third act where Nørgaard loses grip of such careful control however, as the film delves into increasingly absurd situations. The cause and effect nature of the narrative advanced so thoughtfully throughout the film becomes more questionable as the bodycount increases with the audacity of situations. It almost feels departed from the film itself, an unkempt addition to a tight, mechanical story that’s representation of the danish middle class provided a certain plausibility to its more harrowing moments. It is a pity that the film veers off too far into such chaos towards the end as it results in a disappointingly tepid resolution.

The themes dealt with in The Absent One are covered in unflinching detail that is not altogether unnecessary, but all the same packs a disturbing punch. As with most Danish thrillers, this is not a film for the faint of heart. It presents us with an underworld beneath our reality, discomforting and unshakeably relatable in a world of cover ups and secrets. Its extremity is capably used to overturn the more complex themes running under the film that mainly explore class and entitlement, drawing the two together in one of the more disconcerting ways seen on the screen this year. A solid watch.