Gangster pictures are often haunted by the figure of the hulking, ruthless hitman, loyal to a fault, who inevitably squares off against his bosses once they decide he’s outlived his usefulness. In Hans Petter Moland’s black comedy A Somewhat Gentle Man, Stellan Skarsgård plays a variation on the type. Not at all shrewd, Skarsgård does only as he’s asked; if his boss Bjørn Floberg never gave him an assignment, Skarsgård would happily sit in his room, smoking and watching television. And if no one provided him with cigarettes or a TV, he’d just stare at the walls.
A Somewhat Gentle Man follows Skarsgård after he’s released from a 12-year stint in prison. Floberg sets him up in a dingy apartment with a gruff landlady who cooks him dinner and allows him to have sex with her, and he gets Skarsgård a job at a garage run by a sickly mechanic and his distrustful daughter. Floberg wants Skarsgård to kill the man who ratted him out, but there’s no hurry. Until he’s ready to do the job, Skarsgård can settle back into life on the outside, where he has an estranged wife and grown son, and where he meets a succession of weirdo criminals and their equally odd associates.
Moland and screenwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson spin A Somewhat Gentle Man too cutely, with a soundtrack full of ironically sprightly music and a story populated by flatly quirky characters. But the film gets stronger after Skarsgård concludes he’d rather blow off his assignment altogether and live and let live. That choice cuts him off from the free ride he’s been getting from Floberg, leaving Skarsgård to make his own way in the world for a change. There’s nothing going on in A Somewhat Gentle Man that hasn’t been seen in dozens of other films, but the gray Norwegian milieu is memorable, and Skarsgård brings some redemptive soul to the role of a man who gradually begins to understand the aptness of his favorite Pretenders album: Learning To Crawl.