Be nice to your mailman. That's the cautionary message of the Norwegian film Junk Mail. Near the beginning of this hilariously clammy comedy-thriller, the--for lack of a better term--hero, an Oslo mail carrier named Roy (Robert Skjaerstad), is filling the boxes in an apartment building when a middle-aged man who's obviously expecting a letter starts pestering him to hurry up. Irked at the guy's impatience, Roy simply slips the letter into his own pocket, takes it home to his dingy apartment and reads it over his dinner.
This casual violation isn't the worst of Roy's professional indiscretions. A slovenly, sexually frustrated little worm, he hasn't exactly taken the old "Neither rain nor sleet nor dead of night" motto to heart. He's an embodiment of our most ungenerous suspicions about civil servants. Every day, Roy lugs a batch of junk mail to a subway tunnel, where, rather than deliver it, he hoards it in a hole in the wall. One day, while engaged in this inexplicable chore, he leaves his mail cart parked in the middle of the tracks. A train whacks it, and Roy is left standing in a swirling blizzard of undelivered letters.
Yet for all the lack of zeal with which he approaches his job, fate has a way of serving Roy well. When three pitifully inept muggers fail to rob him of his mailbag, in spite of his vigorously craven attempts to oblige them, he receives a commendation from the postal service.
The same sort of bizarre luck kicks in when Roy takes an interest in Line (Andrine Saether), a vaguely pretty, hard-of-hearing young woman. When she leaves her keys in her box one day, Roy takes them, makes a copy and starts poking around her apartment when she's away. His tours of her drab place make it clear that she's the perfect woman for him--he eats only canned spaghetti; she eats only Frosted Flakes. It also becomes clear that the melancholy Line has a guilty secret, an intrigue in which Roy becomes caught up before Line even knows he exists.
Although its narrative is a conventional crime thriller, with no surrealist flights, Junk Mail has a tone of grimy absurdist farce. It's as if a Raymond Chandler story had been adapted by Samuel Beckett and then directed by David Lynch.
In fact, the film is the feature debut of the young director Pal Sletaune, working from a script he co-wrote with Lillehammer-born novelist Jonny Halberg. It's mopped up on the international festival circuit--it took the Critics Week Award at Cannes--and it isn't hard to see why: Sletaune's direction is lean and confident, with a crisp sense of comic timing.
He has the rare ability to create a deadpan atmosphere without sacrificing pace, and he finds images we haven't seen before. The first shot in the film is a fast track along the top of a fence, coming to rest on the face of a security guard who does something so startling we're immediately grabbed. It's a keyed-up beginning, as of a Hong Kong thriller. Yet after the credits, when the story proper begins, the low-key rhythm that Sletaune sets takes over, and we forget all about this strange opening scene until it becomes relevant again.
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The film is also the debut feature for the star, Skjaerstad, a former rock drummer and a veteran of the Oslo Theatre of Cruelty. He resembles Tim Roth and has some of Roth's endearing scrounginess, and he and Saether are surely as doleful a love match as the movies have produced in a while.
American and other foreign audiences may find the film even more striking than Norwegian audiences, for two reasons. First, so much of the story involves spying and eavesdropping that the subtitles only add to the furtive tone. Second, the shabby working-class Oslo we're shown here looks more like a Soviet bloc country than the pristine, spotless view of Scandinavia we're used to from the movies. We're not on Planet Ikea here.
Junk Mail (Budbringeren)
Directed by Pal Sletaune; with Robert Skjaerstad, Andrine Saether, Per Egil Aske, Trond Hovik, Eli Anne Linnestad and Henriette Steenstrup.