By ROCCO THOMPSON
Starring Matti Onnismaa and Jari Virman
Directed by Teemu Niiki
Written by Teemu Niiki
Veijo (Matti Onnismaa), a bespectacled ghoul in a cabby hat, has a sick little side business putting ill or unwanted animals out of their misery. Small ones get the gas—literally, with heavy tubes pumping car exhaust into the covered bed of his truck—larger ones get a bullet to the head. Prices vary, but if you’re (un)lucky, Veijo offers to end your dog’s life for free…provided you agree to spend an unspecified amount of time locked in its soon-to-be vacant, cramped cage: a lesson in empathy and humility that goes unappreciated more often than not. This is the world of Finnish drama EUTHANIZER (ie ARMOMURHAAJA), writer/director Teemu Niiki’s grimly humorous rumination on life, death, and the general shittiness of mankind.
The plot is simple: When the misanthropic Veijo finds a kindred spirit in Lotta (Hannamaija Nikander), a sadomasochistic caretaker who expresses romantic affection for him and his strange work, he starts to rethink his stance stance as an avowed hater of people, but a run-in with perpetually emasculated white-supremacist, Petri (Jari Virman) tests the limits of the potentially dangerous man’s patience with his fellow homo-sapiens.
By outward appearance, EUTHANIZER is a tough-as-nails, working man’s drama: shot with handheld cameras that give a dour realism to the greasy mechanics shops and dusty car lots in which the action takes place. Niiki’s script, however is sharp, wise, often funny and high-minded, even when the on-screen execution of animals becomes almost unbearable. Of course, the violence and deaths depicted are worlds away from the Mondo-era, but the simultaneously loving and workmanlike way in which Veijo approaches his calling will stir complex emotions in any viewer who has ever loved or let down a pet. The supporting cast turns in good work, especially Nikander who imbues the death-curious Lotta with subtle quirks and an easy relatability.
But it’s ultimately Onnismaa’s show. As the titular ender-of-lives, he gives a command performance bigger than the material as a character who the viewer may not want to emulate, but whose unerring sense of fairness and karmic judgement is both commendable and terrifying.
Veijo’s only criteria for forcibly taking an animal’s life is that it be “suffering,” but, Niiki’s script is populated by beasts who suffer more existentially than bodily. Veijo’s first question upon seeing a lone guinea pig brought in to be euthanized by a well-meaning godmother: “Has he been living alone? Guinea pigs need a companion.” When she answers the question in the affirmative, he simply says: “Tell your goddaughter that her guinea pig had a sad life” before taking the creature away to permanently cease its ennui. When an owner accuses a dog of biting his kids, Veijo chides: “Dogs are like people. They’re aggressive if they don’t know their place in the world. They suffer from it and pass their pain to others. There’s always a reason for pain.” When yet another objects to the treatment he’s receiving from the euthanizer with: “You can’t treat people the same as dogs” his response, utterly devoid of humor is: “You’re right, I can shoot your dog in the head, but not you.”
Veijo has no fellow feeling toward his clients, largely because he recognizes their wickedness within himself, and can easily see it in everyone else. Nikki’s film throws the cruelty of men into bright contrast by setting it against the relative benevolence of the animal who relies on him, and this is the core of his message, which is neither kindly nor sentimental, but bracing and brutal as cold mountain air.
Bitterly humorous and bitingly perverse, Teemu Nikki’s EUTHANIZER juxtaposes a gritty Nordic realism with a canny script shot through with venom for the fickle human race. Though Nikki allows a single ray of light to cut through this misanthropic fog in the film’s final minutes, his film runs the viewer through the ringer with an effectiveness that promises bright things for the first time feature director. A sour comedy-of-morals with real guts, EUTHANIZER is well worth the time investment for anyone undeterred by its single line summary.
EUTHANIZER hits cinemas for a limited release on July 20th, with VOD to follow on August 7th.