Without warning, director Daniel Espinosa throws us into the twisted, complex crime saga that is “Easy Money.” The movie opens on Jorge (Matias Varela), who easily escapes from a prison somewhere in Sweden. Off in the woods surrounding the prison another person is waiting with a car to take him away. Who is Jorge? Why was he in prison? Why did he escape? And how does he fit in with the rest of the picture? Espinosa and screenwriter Maria Karlsson-- based on a 2006 Swedish novel named Snabba Cash by Jens Lapidus-- aren’t telling us (at least not yet, anyway).
This is the kind of opening that will likely send impatient viewers (like my mother) into a puzzled frenzy. If we were watching this movie together, chances are she would be firing off those questions (and then some) at rapid fire pace. Espinosa doesn’t talk down to the viewer. He doesn’t give us a prolog, establishing the story. He simply places us in the midst of it and moves it along before we have a chance to get ready. I admit, for about the first ten to fifteen minutes “Easy Money” is not easy to follow, and as more characters show up and more plot points come about it doesn’t get any easier. However, if you pay close attention the film will slowly but surely unravel itself and that’s where part of the fun of watching it comes in.
The movie doesn’t necessarily do anything new. The story deals with drugs, money, bad guys, good guys, good guys who become bad guys and bad guys who become good guys. A lot of stuff happens, sure, but none of it is profound. Much like “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” (based on the book by fellow Swedish author Steig Larsson) “Easy Money” is just an expertly made crime thriller. A wonderfully gritty and meaty exercise in pulpiness, like a film noir.
As I said before, there is a lot going on in “Easy Money.” In addition to Jorge, there are two other main characters, and a number of supporting characters thrown in the mix. The next guy we meet is Johan ‘JW’ Westlund (Joel Kinnaman), a pretty boy, and cool cat. He’s currently in college, where he hangs out with spoiled rich students, although he’s not rich himself. He may be charming and good-looking but he’s also shallow and later on becomes a little pathetic. He has pictures of male models, displaying designer suits taken from magazines, plastered all over his dorm walls. His hair is combed back; he makes sure he’s always wearing the nicest, most expensive suits, all so that he can appear successful. In order to pay for this luxury life he works as a drug runner for local thugs.
This is where he meets Jorge, who is being hunted by a rival gang. If JW keeps him safe for a certain amount of time he’ll get mucho deniro. Meanwhile on the other side of town, a veteran hit man Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic) is the one trying to hunt Jorge down, as a final job so he can take care of his young daughter. One of the best things about the movie is seeing these three guys cross paths with one another throughout the picture and also seeing how their characters develop and change over the course of the--just over two hour--running time.
Kinnaman (the handsome 32 year old Swedish actor, who has a main part on the AMC show “The Killing”) plays his role with a poised seriousness, as does everyone else in the movie. In fact the picture itself is quite somber. Even at times when the characters joke around with one another, you can still sense a serious undertone. “Dragon Tattoo” was the same way. This makes the film a little cold and distant but on the other hand it creates an eerie, chilly tension that keeps you on edge. Even the look of the film is glowing and ominous.
More so, the entire film-- from one scene to another-- has an unpredictability about it overall. You don’t know who to trust. Each character has his or her own set of motives. In the end it’s only the innocent characters (Mrado’s daughter or JW’s love interest) who are truly honest. This is the only film so far this year where I was completely unaware of where it was going. Even when it reaches its home stretch (a massive drug pickup) it doesn’t go the way you’d expect it to. So many shady dealings take place, so much intrigue is piled on. Now, I haven’t read Lapidus’ book, so maybe the movie isn’t as unpredictable to someone who has read it. Either way there’s so much excitement and tautness that will keep your eyes glued to the screen.
Espinosa’s most recent film was the mediocre, Jason Bourne-esque crime caper “Safe House” (“Easy Money” was made in 2010 and played at last year’s Toronto International film festival) with Denzel Washington. And like that movie, Espinosa is fond of using the shaky, hand held camera. Sometimes this method works in “Easy Money’s” favor, adding grit and intensity, but at others (like during the action scenes) it makes you queasy and kind of detracts from the impact of certain scenes. There are a few other flaws, mainly that—since there is so much going on—the movie can get messy, especially towards the end.
After playing at the Berlin film festival Warner Brothers won the rights for an American remake of “Easy Money,” which is apparently going to star Zac Efron. If said remake is made it will most likely be more sleek and polished--like David Fincher’s remake of “Tattoo”--and potentially better. Except, I don’t see how Efron could hold a candle to Kinnaman.
In the meantime though, American viewers can bask in this compelling, rough and perfectly enjoyable Swedish export that doesn’t spell things out for you.