‘Drifters’ (‘Tjuvheder’): San Sebastian Review

Malin Levanon stars in Peter Gronlund’s debut feature, a hard-hitting social drama from Sweden.

The lower depths of Swedish society are sympathetically surveyed in Peter Gronlund‘s Drifters (Tjuvheder), a competent foray into Ken Loach terrain that’s overall as memorable as its oft-used English-language title. Picking up a Special Mention when world-premiering in San Sebastian’s lucrative New Directors competition, it should prove a decent fit for festivals seeking socially-conscious fare. Prospects at Scandinavian box-offices don’t seem particularly promising, however and — one indelibly vivid supporting performance notwithstanding — it lacks the extra spark needed to justify arthouse distribution farther afield.

Writer-director Gronlund expands and builds upon his well-received 2011 short The Clearing, again working with that picture’s leads Malin Levanon and Lo Kauppi. In a committed if slightly one-note performance, Levanon (previously billed as “Malin Vulcano“) is seldom off-screen as 30-ish blonde Minna, who’s afflicted with ADHD, a troubled family history and an addiction to amphetamines. Perpetually cash-strapped and restlessly nervy, Minna finds temporary escape from her fast-multiplying woes in a Stockholm trailer-park after a chance encounter with Katja (Lauppi), who has problems of her own. “Here, we look out for each other,” she’s counseled by the run-down camp’s supervisor, “Here we’re loyal.” But Minna’s opportunistic solipsism means she falls a long way from the ideal espoused by the film’s Swedish-language moniker, which translates as ‘honor among thieves’ — until events eventually compel her towards a climactic, redemptive act of altruism.

The Bottom Line

Scandi grit, of variable verisimilitude.

Minna’s path to decency is complicated by her entanglements with the local underground crime-scene, especially when she incurs the wrath of the district’s much-feared Mr. Big, Christer Korsback. Taking a leaf from the Shakespeare playbook, Gronlund peppers the first half of his screenplay with numerous mentions of Korsback, ominously foreshadowing his delayed appearance in the picture’s second half. It proves well worth the wait, as Korsback proves a truly chilling and scary presence thanks to the distinctively scarred, hollow-cheeked, intense-eyed physiognomy and sheer malevolent charisma of non-pro Jan Mattsson.

Mattsson’s presence is so forceful — there’s one truly remarkable confrontation where he turns on the menace full-blast and sprays saliva through his peg-like teeth — that it becomes simultaneously Drifters‘ trump-card and downfall: his intense verisimilitude makes pretty much everything else on view suddenly seem artificial, contrived, ersatz. If all goes well, 50-year-old Mattsson can surely look forward to several years of steady, gainful employment in the busy world of Scandinavian crime cinema and television. As for Gronlund, Drifters represents a fairly promising debut in its clear-eyed scrutiny of a milieu most folk are happy to ignore, one in which Sweden’s much-praised social-work system is presented as playing a crucial — if not always totally effective — role. But there’s also a certain amount of pill-sugaring in the slickness of Staffan Ovgard‘s cinematography and the doomy-moody stylizations of Johan Testad‘s intermittently-deployed score, betraying a certain degree of directorial inexperience and suggesting a lack of confidence in the material’s considerable strengths. 

Production company: B-Reel

Cast: Malin Levanon, Lo Kauppi, Jan Mattsson, Kalled Mustonen, Ulf Stenberg, Tomasz Neuman

Director / Screenwriter: Peter Gronlund

Producer: Frida Bargo

Executive producer: Fredrik Heinig

Cinematographer: Staffan Ovgard

Production Designer: Kajsa Severin

Costume designer: Mia Andersson

Editor: Kristofer Nordin

Composer: Johan Testad

Casting: Pauline Hansson

Sales: The Match Factory, Cologne

No Rating, 96 minutes