There is a tendency in the current popular culture consciousness to associate all Scandinavian films of the crime variety with “Scandi-noir”, epitomised in television series such as The Killing and The Bridge. This is in spite of significant evidence that Scandinavia can, in fact, produce crime thrillers that aren’t all slow-paced, gloomy and full of knitted jumpers – such as Neils Arden Oplev’s adaptation of Stieg Larson’s Millennium books, or Moten Tyldum’s gloriously fast, funny (and at times silly) take on Jo Nesbø’s Headhunters. Perhaps it is due to the easily exportable nature of Scandi-noir – its signifiers can be quickly identified and replicated, resulting in straight American adaptations such as AMC’s The Killing and FX’s The Bridge, and the more convoluted British borrowing in Broadchurch, which is “Scandi” in all but location, and Wallander – again, an adaptation, but one that retained the original Swedish setting, essentially only changing the language and actors.
Easy Money, made in 2010 by a pre-Safe House Daniel Espinosa, begins with a heart-pounding prison break and never really slows down after that, owing more to American gangster films than it does to the comparatively plodding Scandi-noir (it is particularly telling that Martin Scorsese has championed the film, partnering with The Weinstein Company to “present” it in the States in 2012). It follows three characters – JW, a business undergraduate in Stockholm desperately trying to fit in with the upper class set while illegally driving a cab at night and hiding his provincial, lower class roots (played by now-Robocop Joel Kinnaman); Jorge (Matias Varela), our prison breaker who works for the same Arab crime lords as JW, and is saved by him when he is beaten by the men working for a Serbian crime lord, Radovan (Dejan Cukic); and Mrado, a hitman working for Radovan while trying to protect his eight-year-old daughter. With Jorge trying to set up a competing drug smuggling ring against the Serbs and JW helping the Arab crime lords to launder their money through the failing bank of his upper-class friend, there’s no guarantee that any of them will get out alive or with their money, and there’s soon no knowing who to trust, or who is double-crossing who.
One of the strongest characters in Easy Money is Sweden itself. This is a post-GFC world, and even though one of the upper-crust’s bank is being saved by what is unambiguously drug money, class divides remain. The police are noticeably absent, the underworld is richly multi-ethnic and the collision between white and blue collar crime, from money laundering to drug smuggling, shows the arbitrary difference between them. JW, as he straddles the two worlds, covering his walls with photos of male models and sewing new buttons on to shirts to try to hide their non-couture origins, practically breathes upward mobility, but those at the top aren’t exactly making room. In one scene we see JW, at a country house party for the weekend with the upper-crust snorting the cocaine his associates most likely imported, alone in a room, talking to an imaginary upper-class family. As he gesticulates at thin air about hunting and shooting, we can’t help but sympathise with someone so desperate to improve on their lot. This is one of the biggest legacies of the American gangster film – the American dream gone sour, that desire to make a better life leading to crime. Easy Money shows us that in a post-GFC world, that dream is universal, and the potential for crime doubly so.
From there, it’s a slippery slope to sympathising with all of the criminals in this piece – Mrado, for example, was beaten as a child, and Jorge is just trying to help his sister. Without an authority figure in the police, the criminals become their own foils, and our criminal protagonists are drawn in such a way that we understand and sympathise with them more so than we do the spoiled upper-classes. There’s some pointed social commentary about the one percent in here, but it doesn’t get in the way of an unrelenting plot, and works more as an entree to the protagonists than an overbearing message.
The role of women in the film is perhaps one of its weakest points – each of our three male protagonists has a female character that represents some kind of conscience, or motivator – Jorge is determined to prove himself to his pregnant sister who has thrown him out, Mrado has his daughter, and JW begins a relationships with Sophie (Lisa Henni), an upper-class girl who loves him but thinks he’s the son of a diplomat. Throughout the film these women are little more than boxes ticked for their men, providing a reason to keep committing crime. While this is probably not unrealistic, its one of the most disappointingly two-dimensional elements of the film.
It’s easy to see why this film brought Espinosa to the attention of Hollywood – it’s fast-paced, captivating, and despite an increasingly complicated and convoluted plot, it never loses its audience. For what could easily become a derivative gangster rip-off, it stands instead as a breath of fresh air amongst slowly-plotted thrillers, and makes the most of its locale to bring something new to the gangster film.