Is there anything more reliable in cinema than the crime drama? We have our middle-aged, grizzled police officer. He chain-smokes, drinks heavily, and seems to send his shirts to be custom-ruffled daily. He doesn’t get along with people – he’s taciturn, gruff, and so forth – but, dammit, he gets results. You will be shocked to find that his chief doesn’t appreciate his clearance record, and probably wants him off the case at some point (he wants his badge, too). But this cop takes his cases personally, and he’ll do his darnedest to make sure he solves this apparent suicide/abduction/regicide, badge or no badge.
The Keeper of Lost Causes, making it to Australian shores shortly for the Scandinavian Film Festival, follows this formula to a tee. As said middle-aged, taciturn cop is Carl Mørck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), relegated to cold cases after a raid goes wrong. The cold case in question is a suicide-that-isn’t. Conventional or not, the story is well-executed and consistently engaging, but it never exceeds its conformist trappings.
Beyond the crime drama conventions listed above, The Keeper of Lost Causes structurally shares similarities with Scandinavian smash hit The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. There’s the parallel stories – the recently-disgraced hero, of course, alongside the woman at the centre of the cold case, Merete Lynggaard (Sonja Richter), quickly revealed to have been actually abducted and imprisoned. As the story progresses, a dark history is uncovered (because of course it is), though with less sexual assault than Larsson’s bestseller. It’s not hard to imagine the posters for the film festooned with phrases like “the next Girl with the Dragon Tattoo!” (There you go, publicists, that one’s a gimme.)
Director Mikkel Nørgaard bears a significant stylistic debt to David Fincher, who adapted Dragon Tattoo for western screens. He borrows – as so many modern crime dramas do – Fincher’s musty, second-hand bookstore aesthetic: the faded cardboard-browns, the dusty greens and the deep, inky blacks. The film’s philosophy of nihilism, pessimism and a hard edge of sadism is shared with much of Fincher’s oeuvre; it’s wisely balanced by the optimism of Mørck’s partner, Assad (Fares Fares) – their partnership recalls Pitt and Freeman in Fincher’s Se7en.
I’ve been spending a long time discussing what The Keeper of Lost Causes borrows from other films. That’s not accidental – there’s little in the mix here that hasn’t been plucked out of a template somewhere, right down to plot twists that stretch credulity. Thing is, I’m a total sucker for this breed of nihilistic crime drama. Prisoners was one of my favourite films of 2013, and it was hardly original nor absent ridiculous narrative decisions. So I’m buying whatever Nørgaard is selling, and remained engaged throughout – especially in the film’s tenser moments.
And yet… the great films in this genre transcend their clichés by evoking something true within their twists and turns. Se7en is frankly ridiculous, but finds nuance in its consideration of the moral continuum. Prisoners, meanwhile, has within its melange of mazes and serpents an honest, heartfelt elicitation of the terrible pain of losing a child. There’s no such resonance here. The Keeper of Lost Causes is, at the end of the day, just another story about grumpy cops investigating well-resourced psychopaths with implausibly intricate plans.