Review: Shame on Dry Land
by Elena Lazic
- Malta is a haven for the rich and their moral wasteland in Swedish director Axel Petersén’s atmospheric thriller
A man gets off a freighter somewhere in a port city. A cap on his head, his movements furtive, he almost escapes the gaze of the camera as he makes his way through the nocturnal city. Most suspiciously, he buys a sim card and mobile phone, as though keen to leave no marks of his dealings. What sinister business is he about to embark on? In a taxi, he ignores his talkative driver, his mind apparently focused on the job he has to do. But what is it? The tension is high when he finally meets his target: outside a villa in Malta, he comes up to a man who grows pale at the sight. “Please forgive me,” the man in the cap says, and we expect the worst. But no — turns out these two are old friends.
We soon learn that Dimman (Joel Spira), the impromptu visitor, was partnered in business with Fredrik (Christopher Wagelin) eight years prior, before dropping off the face of the earth when their venture was revealed to be nothing but a fraud. Caught off guard, Fredrik suffered the consequences alone. But what kind of grifter would ask for forgiveness? Playing in the Platform section of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Axel Petersén’s Shame on Dry Land [+see also:
film profile] offers a fascinating and lurid psychological portrait of some of the people who evolve in the highly permissive world of illegal (and borderline illegal) business. Besides making up with his friend, Dimman is also in Malta to repay a favour to Kiki (Jacqueline Ramel), a rich benefactor who has now tasked him with tailing a mysterious man claiming to be an international fraud investigator. Like all the other characters mentioned, this stranger is Swedish, and while the Malta we see through their eyes is beautiful, it also seems an ideal playground for the international rich and criminal. Petersén and director of photography Josua Enblom never lose sight of this contrast: Malta’s airs of relaxed luxury make it a postcard-perfect holiday location, but also an optimal cover for brutal deals, violent blackmail, threats and exploitation. This makes for a consistently fascinating film that has us inch closer to the screen, even as we grow increasingly disgusted by the ruthlessness on display.
The frenetic visual style, with the camera chasing after its protagonist and the sharp cuts echoing the brutal reality behind the sunsets and linen suits, gives it the airs of a thriller. But most of all, it offers insight into Dimman’s mindset: he isn’t exactly a smooth operator. Desperate for absolution, he is extremely anxious. Yet when tailing the stranger, he clearly knows what he is doing. Petersén thus elegantly hints at his character’s past, as well as the ways he has changed and is still changing: his nervousness suggests that he truly feels guilty, but also that admitting fault and taking responsibility is a new experience for him. Shame on Dry Land shows high flying illegality as a way of life that affects the psyche: if someone can be rich one second and broke the next (Fredrik’s new venture is in online poker games), move from country to country without changing their habits (Kiki tours the world on her sailboat but always meets the same wealthy Swedes), and have friends turn into enemies, what can they hold on to? Spira plays Dimman like he is drowning, paranoid and unable to believe in anything or anyone. To be forgiven by Fredrik, whose life he had left in ruins, is the one thing that could restore a solid ground underneath his feet. Petersén crafts a tight and engrossing thriller that calls back to 1970s neo-noir American films in the way it uses a crime story to look into the moral and psychological makeup of a protagonist both created by and at odds with his environment.
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