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WARSAW 2018

Review: Mihkel

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- Ari Alexander Ergis Magnússon's movie is a hard-to-stomach crime-drama that tells the true story of a drug deal gone wrong

Review: Mihkel
Tómas Lemarquis in Mihkel

There is a saying in Estonian: Igal oinal on oma Mihklipäev, or “Every ram has its St Michael’s Day.” It means that any form of arrogance is bound to meet its doom at some point. It was customary to sacrifice sheep for St Michael’s Day, or Michaelmas, and sure enough, someone is brought to the altar in Mihkel [+see also:
trailer
interview: Pääru Oja
film profile
]
by Ari Alexander Ergis Magnússon, an Estonian-Icelandic-Norwegian crime-drama that had two international premieres – at the Busan and Warsaw Film Festivals – and two domestic ones in Iceland and Estonia this October.

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Mihkel (Pääru Oja) accepts a dubious offer from his childhood friend Igor (Kaspar Velberg) to take an unknown suitcase to Tallinn from north-eastern Estonia in 2004. Upon his arrival, it becomes clear that Tallinn is only a way station, and Mihkel has to swallow the cargo (66 drug capsules) and take a flight to Reykjavik. He is met there by two small-time crooks, Jóhann (Atli Rafn Sigurðsson) and Bóbó (Tómas Lemarquis). All of their dreams of riches are put on hold, though, when it proves impossible to get the capsules out of Mihkel’s stomach.

These four misfits manage to play together so well as a quartet, complementing each other with their clearly distinguishable characters, that everyone else falls by the wayside, even in the case of such prominent actors as Ingvar E Sigurðsson as Jóhann’s father; the others just have less substantial parts to perform. The film is relentlessly bleak, and the stereotypical beautiful Icelandic scenery turns into a desolate and ruthless backdrop to petty crime, stressing the futility of it all. 

The audience is tricked into believing it is about to watch another Nordic Noir tale (it’s reminiscent of the Baltasar Kormákur-produced Netflix series Trapped, as we have a mutilated dead body, nature is depicted as something brutal, and Trapped also uses a Lithuanian mobster as one of its villains), but the unfolding disaster starts to move more and more into body-horror territory, prompting a much stronger reaction from the audience than could be expected, and daring us to continue watching.

Even if the title is not an allegory of St Michael, the guardian of the church (Mihkel accepts the drugs from the church in the film, and is “protecting” their criminal interests), hints of religion are peppered throughout the film. Estonians are described as a nation that goes to church only for “weddings and funerals”, and drone shots of Reykjavik feature the prominent Hallgrímskirkja church looming over the city and perhaps guarding it. Mihkel’s fall from grace is completely his own doing, as he is given every chance to back out of the deal, but he chooses money and even gets the consent of his girlfriend, Veera (Maiken Schmidt). So, you could argue that the sacrifice in question was signed and sealed by the ram, and Mihkel could serve as a cautionary tale for young, wannabe drug mules who think that St Michael’s Day will never come.

Mihkel was produced by Icelandic outfit Truenorth, Estonia’s Amrion and Norway’s Evil Doghouse Production. Its international sales are managed by Danish sales agent Level K.

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