Movie Review: ‘Sisu’

Plot: It’s 1944 and Nazi Germany is losing the war. Finland makes a treaty with the Soviet Union ending aggression between the two countries if they remove the Germans from Finland. Taking a “scorched Earth” policy approach, the Nazis destroy and burn everything in their path as they retreat into Norway. Amid this chaos stands Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila) a former Finnish commando who spends his days panning for gold with his horse and dog, Aatami’s only companions. After discovering a rich gold deposit, Aatami fills two duffel bags full of gold nuggets and heads to town, hoping to cash in on his new fortune. Unfortunately, Aatami runs afoul of a thirty-man Wehrmacht platoon led by SS Obersturmfuhrer Bruno Helldorf (Aksel Hennie). Unfortunate that is for the platoon. When the group decides to steal Aatami’s gold, they soon discover why his fellow soldiers nicknamed him “The Immortal” and what it truly means to possess sisu.

Review: I’ve said it before and I’ll it reiterate now, the best thing about being a film reviewer is running across those films you didn’t see coming. Somehow, they drift across your radar unexpectedly and leave an impression with their sheer power and audacity. Afterward, you feel gobsmacked, unsure of your cinematic footing but absolutely convinced you’ve witnessed greatness. It’s the kind of film I live for.

Sisu is one of those movies.

Powerful, frenetic, brilliantly shot, with impeccable action and some of the best Nazi killing this side of Aldo Raine’s band of merry men, Sisu grabs you by your adrenal glands and doesn’t let go for ninety-one minutes. A throwback to the “revengeomatics” of the 1970s that Lady Snowblood and Rolling Thunder would be proud of, it’s easily the most fun I’ve had at the movies all year.

Naturally, Sisu will draw comparisons to 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, and to an extent it’s warranted. Both films are divided into chapters (Gold, The Nazis, The Minefield, The Legend, Scorched Earth, and Kill Them All) and both involve the vicious slaughter of Nazis. However, that’s about where the similarities end. As much as I love Tarantino’s masterpiece, Sisu comes across much leaner and meaner, with Juho Virolainen’s slick editing keeping the film consistently taunt and tight. There’s about as much fat on this film as Aatami and the movie is better for it.

Despite being a WWII movie, Sisu feels much like a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western, with Jorma Tommila as the stand-in for Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. Even though writer/director Jalmari Helander’s story is relatively straightforward, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for nuance. This comes via Jorma Tommila who gives a stunning lead performance. With only five lines in the entire movie, everything is told in glances, glares, hand gestures, and body movements. Sisu often feels damn close to a silent film in this regard. Helander also chooses (rightly) to give the Nazis zero redeeming value whatsoever. They are soulless, evil monsters that rape, pillage, steal, murder, and destroy with impunity. You absolutely cannot wait for their comeuppance and when the uppance comes you will squeal with delight.

What’s astonishing to me is that though a mostly physical role, Tommila exhibits a pathos I wasn’t expecting. Yes, he wants to secure his gold, but he never comes across as greedy or beholden to it. In fact, in watching his reaction to the discovery of the gold and his will to keep it, you get the sense that the shadow of his dead wife lies heavy on him. Almost as if the act was something they were meant to do together. Aatami’s love for his animals, especially his dog, also endears you to him. These details give the story more narrative heft and made me root for Aatami that much more.  

Due to the paucity of dialogue, Helander is forced to rely on the camera to tell the story and he does so to great effect. Cinematographer Kjell Lagerroos provides the tools for Helander’s design, shooting the sweeping vistas of Lapland as if they were the American plains. There are plenty of wide and mid shots that either zoom or dolly in and linger on faces just a bit longer than you expect, to accentuate the emotional impact. I was particularly moved by a scene where the main baddie Bruno (a brilliant turn by Aksel Hennie) lets Aatami finish gathering his gold nuggets when they are knocked away from him. There are plenty of old-school Western camera motifs as well whether it is intrepid heroes walking out of the smoke and fog or Aatami standing alone before a tank onslaught. The action sequences, from firefights to one-on-one violent beatings are framed and filmed with tenacity and passion. There’s even a nod to a famous sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark. This is like if Open Range, Mad Max, Once Upon A Time In The West, and Dirty Harry had a kid.

The creative variety of the kills in Sisu is absolutely insane. Throwing an active mine at a Nazi’s head? Check. Death by rock? You want it you got it. Covert underwater shenanigans? Send it in on down. A unique airplane kill? As Vincent Hannah says in Heat, “Give me all ya got!” They are all enhanced by a searing and unique score from Juri Seppa and Tuomas Wainola. Think Ennio Morricone’s For a Few Dollars More by way of Jack Nitzsche in The Exorcist and Hans Zimmer in The Dark Knight with a little Sardaukar throat singing thrown in for good measure and you’ll be near the mark.

And the grit and sheer will of Aatami? Well, sisu is a Finnish word that doesn’t have an English equivalent but it basically means strength of will, determination, and perseverance in the face of adversity. It’s the ability to sustain courage against hopeless odds. They should have a picture of Aatami next to this word in the Finnish dictionary. This man willfully sets himself on fire, bandages himself up without anesthetic, and does something to survive a hanging that would have made John Wick proud. Aatami is an unstoppable force that earns the nickname Koschei, which means immortal. I loved every second he was onscreen.

People may end up dismissing Sisu as a simple revenge tale but don’t make that mistake. There’s much more than meets the Panzer tank in this one. Does it go off-the-rails-cuckoo-bananas in the third act? Yes, but in the best way possible. Like its lead character, Sisu goes HAM the entire time and left me with a satisfied, revenge-sated grin on my face when the credits rolled.  

My rating system:

God Awful Blind Yourself With Acid Bad

2 Straight Garbage

3 Bad

4 Sub Par

5 Average

6 Ok

7 Good

8 Very Good

9 Great

10 A Must See

Sisu: 10/10