When watching a movie by the Finnish writer-director Aki Kaurismäki, you have to remember to accustom yourself to silences — long silences, the kind where the characters stop speaking to each other and look blankly off into the middle-distance, as if they were blind. Or the kind of silences that occur when someone leaves a room, or a scene, but the camera remains fixed on, say, a shot of half-empty pints on a bar table. It's futile to actively hate this unique anti-style: His movies are so grim, scrappy and loaded with irony, it's best to just succumb to the emptiness and try to fill in the blanks yourself.
You'll have plenty of voids to contemplate in Kaurismaki's latest, Lights in the Dusk. In rough outline, it's a neo-noir, a classic tale of a lonely security guard everyman used and abused by an icy femme fatale. But the filmmaker's careful, meted style prevents you from predicting what's going to happen and when. Even as the movie seems inexorably headed toward nihilistic tragedy, it's the asides — the weird, static shots of Helsinki's factories and vistas, or the golden morning light creeping over the city — that make you think there might be more to this simple little story than meets the eye.
There isn't, really. The best parts of Lights come early on, when our brooding, chip-on-his-shoulder hero Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen) sustains a wide variety of abuse from his co-workers ("Have you gotten laid yet?" they joke). We see him try — and fail — to rescue a neglected mutt from a group of thugs, and the scene is like a weird, Nordic update of an old spaghetti Western, right down to its bar-brawl backdrop. It's enough to make you hope that the comically aggressive blonde (Maria Järvenhelmi) who picks him up at lunch one day ("We should get married") will be his salvation.
Their absurd mating process — standing completely still at a rollicking rock concert, shooting moony glances at each other during an ultra-violent movie — gives the movie a deadpan kick. Unfortunately, the same can't be said of the inevitable betrayal, which takes up an inordinate amount of screen time until we wait for the impotent Koistinen to exact his working-class revenge. But still, the director's stubborn insistence on drawing things out yields moments of true beauty. And, hell, if you find yourself getting really impatient, the whole thing's over in a mere 78 minutes. Kaurismäki may be a ponderous existentialist, but at least he's not a sadist. —Michael Hastings
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 15 and at 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 16-17. Call 313-833-3237.