Panic Fest 2023: Jalmari Helander’s Sisu brings the pain in stellar form

Man finds gold. Nazis try to take man's gold. Man kills many Nazis to recover said gold. Glorious and bountiful carnage ensues.
Still Sisu 1

Sisu. // Courtesy Lionsgate

This story is part of our coverage of Panic Fest 2023Read more from our film team here.

When does a trend or fad become the new normal? For instance, in the almost decade following John Wick, the movie industry has shifted how it tackles action in films. Fights have not only become bloodier and more brutal, but how they’re captured has changed, as well. Allowing audiences to see the damage doled out by both good guys and bad, rather than quick cuts of nonsense, has intrinsically changed things. 

That systemic shift—fad or no—is what allows a movie like Sisu to exist. This is a no-holds-barred action machine that is sure to cause thunderous cheers from viewers.

As far as stories go, Sisu is as lean as they come. In WWII, a Finnish man (Jorma Tommila) abandons the war, as Nazis are ordered to leave Finland and enact a scorched earth policy.

Man finds gold. Nazis try to take man’s gold. Man kills many Nazis to recover said gold. Glorious and bountiful carnage ensues.

That meager premise allows writer-director Jalmari Helander (Rare Exports) ample room to create a monster hybrid action-war-western. Imagine if Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name crossed with Old Man Logan and John Wick, armed with knives and a pickaxe. Sisu wholly embodies the best parts of those movies, making it a unique mix of all of them.

The title itself is derived from a Finnish word that has no translation but relates to hopeless situations in which unimaginable strength and resolve are conjured up. Perfect for when the odds are against you and countless Nazis stand in your path to freedom.

Tommila’s Aatami Korpi may have exploits that put him in the realm of legend, but he’s still very much a man. He’s what you might get if Wolverine rushed into battle without the healing factor. In an extended sequence late in the film, Korpi performs first aid on himself, his gnarled and twisted body looking like the husk of someone who should have died long ago. He drops shard after bloody shard of shrapnel and untold bullets into a bin next to him. It’s as awe-inspiring as it is disturbing.

As great as the action is, Helander imbues the film with a great deal of beauty to go along with the blood and grime. Kjell Lagerroos’ cinematography continuously takes its time to soak up the vast and beautiful terrain. Allowing the serene opening passages to slowly descend into a nightmarish vision. One that drains all color and hope from the world, save for blood and greed. They say that war makes men do terrible things and this story shows what happens in the aftermath.

The same goes for the characterizations. Light on dialogue doesn’t mean there isn’t depth. Serving as the flip side to Aatami Korpi, SS Captain Helldorf (Aksel Hennie) is as cunning as he is cruel. His comrades may be easily distracted by the prospect of captive women and cheap booze, but he knows what horrors await them upon their return to Germany. Korpi and his unmarked gold are the one ticket he may have to escape, no matter how many men he may have to sacrifice.

Sisu is a work of clear vision, full of moments that cause audiences to jump to their feet and cheer. Helander and his crew combine brutal, grounded action with legitimate thrills in a movie that brings the best of what contemporary action movies have to offer and melds it with classic storytelling. To miss seeing this as soon as possible would be to let the Nazis win, and no one wants that.

This story is part of our coverage of Panic Fest 2023Read more from our film team here.

Categories: Movies