Starring Thor Kristjansson, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, and Damon Younger
Directed by Óskar Thór Axelsson
The focus for my Fantasia festival has been horror, animation, and Asian cinema. Therefore, I’m utterly clueless how an Icelandic drug dealing movie worked it’s way into my schedule, but I’m glad it did. Although Black’s Game may not be the most original movie at this year’s festival, I think that scores of filmmakers could learn from the plentiful excitement and the near-perfect pacing on display.
As a young man, sometimes during a night out you can have too many beverages. Sometimes when you have too many beverages you can do something stupid. Sometimes when you do something stupid the consequences can be devastating. This is exactly the path that young Stebbi (Kristjansson) finds himself on after he drunkenly breaks a glass on a young man’s face and finds himself with an upcoming court date which could land him in prison for a few years. Purely by chance, Stebbi runs into his old friend Tóti (Jóhannesson) who claims he can set Stebbi up with a lawyer to get him off the aggravated assault charge. Stebbi takes Tóti up on his offer and as a result a reciprocal favour, finds himself a part of Tóti’s inner drug-dealing circle. Not only that, but a particularly violent incident with a baseball bat sees Stebbi renamed Stebbi Psycho, and it’s not because of his batting average. The rest of the story follows these young men as they get immersed in the world of the Icelandic drug trade.
It’s hard for me to get excited for a drug movie because they seem so mundane. Drug traffickers are constantly on the news. In high school everyone was familiar with who had their hand in the pocket of this particular ‘business’. And most importantly, there are a ton of drug movies. The concept is very accessible for independent filmmakers, but Hollywood has also had more than their fair share of drug themed movies. Like zombies and vampires in the horror genre, it seems like the drug trade in film needs a new spin. Now I’m not sure how original Black’s Game is, it may not be original at all except for the cold Icelandic setting. However, Black’s Game reminded me why it can be rewarding to revisit a tired genre if the filmmakers pay particular attention to the storytelling.
From start to finish Black’s Game is paced almost perfectly. We begin with a fairly stupid and brash version of Stebbi, someone who is easy to identify with because of his youth. Stebbi gets sucked into Tóti’s world, and not totally against his will, an aspect that ensures Stebbi stays a multi-dimensional character and not simply a frightened prop to be moved from scene to scene. There is always something happening on the screen in Black’s Game, whether it be violence, sex, double-crossing, revenge, or fraud, and it never seems like overkill. Add to this some of the most excellent pacing that I have seen at Fantasia 2012 and the 100 minute run-time feels short.
While Kristjansson does a great job as Stebbi, a fairly regular guy who makes some bad decisions and becomes enamoured with the flashy world of drugs. However, my favourite performances came from the supporting cast filled with scumbags, murderous madmen, and rats. Jóhannesson (Tóti) and Younger (Bruno) as particularly captivating as sociopaths who absolutely ooze criminality and violence. These men made me uncomfortable sitting in my seat – even that was too close to these guys.
Finally, the cold and unforgiving Icelandic landscapes are the perfect setting for Black’s Game, mirroring the heart of the drug trade world. Perfect for fans of the genre, but also accessible and enjoyable for those who only watch a drug-themed movie every now and then. Black’s Game is an often violent, sometimes obscene, but always stylish view of the Icelandic underworld of the 90’s. Stebbi Psycho and company are like a young pack of werewolves; the theatre screen is as close as you will want to get to this unsavoury group.