“Sisu” – Silence is golden.
Aatami (Jorma Tommila), the main character in Sisu, has two lines of dialogue in the film’s entire ninety-minute runtime. Both of them occur at the film’s end and neither of them define the word sisu. According to another character, Aino (Mimosa Willamo), sisu is a Finnish concept that cannot be translated into English. Then, she promptly translates it into English. She defines it as strength of will, determination, perseverance, and acting rationally in the face of adversity, then concludes that Aatami has sisu. Does he though? It’s hard to say.
The film begins with shots of a desolate landscape, near silence, and Aatami panning for gold. Spotting a tiny gold nugget, Aatami starts digging holes to find the vein responsible for said nugget. More quiet ensues, except the sound of Aatami’s pickaxe striking dirt, his dog occasionally wandering through the shot. Covered in dirt and scars, we’re getting a visual representation of sisu in Aatami’s quest to find gold. It’s a great way to start a film…..until you notice some jerk is talking over it, telling us things about Aatami that an actual character is going to repeat later in the film.
After the narration mercifully ends, the scene concludes with Aatami striking gold, packing up his tent and horse, stuffing two saddlebags with gold nuggets, and setting off to the nearest town for his payday. While riding, he crosses paths with a Nazi platoon of about twenty men, including the company’s commander, Bruno Helldorf (Aksel Hennie), riding a tank. Yes, he’s sitting exactly like you think he is.
It’s a fairly tense moment, as we fully expect Helldorf to stop Aatami, if not shoot him immediately. Instead, Helldorf does the opposite, stopping his second-in-command, Wolf (Jack Doolan), from shooting Aatami. Don’t worry, Helldorf isn’t the one Nazi with a heart of gold. As he orders his squad onward, he tells Wolf Aatami is riding to his death anyway, knowing his rearguard down the road will kill Aatami. It’s too bad Helldorf didn’t hear the earlier narration or he would have known to kill Aatami on sight.
Aatami does indeed come across the rearguard and it is here we find out what kind of movie Sisu is. After they rough Aatami up and discover his bags of gold, Aatami clenches his fists, purses his lips, and brutally kills them as they try to execute him. And nothing of these kills is left to our imaginations. Bullets fly, skulls are impaled, blood sprays. It’s that kind of movie, no more no less.
Unfortunately for Aatami, Helldorf’s superpower is sensitive hearing. Implausibly, Helldorf hears the distant gunshots over the sound of the tank he is sitting on and orders the platoon to about face and investigate. They arrive at the scene to find the carnage, as well as a gold nugget dropped during the fight. Helldorf orders them to chase down Aatami, leading to one of the top three grossest moments in the film. I won’t spoil it for you, but consider this your warning if you have a weak stomach.
The platoon arrives to find Aatami in the middle of a minefield, scrambling to pick up his scattered gold nuggets after a mine exploded. Helldorf again stops his men from shooting Aatami, quizzically watching Aatami and the surprising amount of gold. I don’t blame Helldorf – it’s a sight that defies rationality. After Aatami finishes repacking the gold and stands to face the Nazis, Helldorf orders the platoon to ready, aim, fi…mine explodes, cloud of dust. Another action scene unfolds featuring some novelty deaths. In case the first gratuitous action scene didn’t get the film’s point across, this scene bangs it home.
Sisu is a graphically violent action movie that makes the case that screenwriting is more of a suggestion than a necessity. The villains are literal Nazis, so the rest of the barely one-dimensional characters are enough for us to decide who to root for. It features a grab bag of conveniences and implausibilities that keep Aatami alive – some bordering on the laughably absurd. And audience members did laugh. The aforementioned opening narration is rendered redundant when Wolf relays Aatami’s history to Helldorf and the entire audience (augmented further by Aino in a later scene). It even includes standard action cliches like bad guys with terrible aim and the hero literally walking off bullet wounds to the leg and stitching himself up after removing shrapnel from himself. Throw in a bullwhip and fedora and it’s the rated-R Indiana Jones movie we’d all die to see.
When the dust finally settled, I can say with certainty that Aatami does not have sisu. I can see Aino’s point with the first three parts of the definition of sisu. Aatami is the most persistent and determined human this side of John Wick, willing himself through multiple apparent deaths like a terminator. But he certainly isn’t rational. Aatami spends much of the film clinging to bags of gold while Nazis hunt him for it, then chases after them when they take it from him. He could have avoided the entire confrontation if he had simply ridden his horse off the road and avoided the Nazis. If by rational Aino meant pathologically stubborn, I think Aatami would agree. Silently, of course.
Rating: Ask for two dollars back and you can quote me.