Estonia’s entry for the International Feature Film Oscar (although not shortlisted) is a frontier western transplanted to the bleakest edges of Lapland tundra. Veiko Õunpuu’s drama is as chilly as its beautifully desolate scenery, throwing class, toxic masculinity, sex, drugs, and the encroaching end of traditional ways of life into one blunt metaphor that masks itself as a morally ambiguous character study. It succeeds while its protagonists keep their motivations and machinations in the shadows, but collapses into the outlaw cliches it acknowledges and sidesteps early on.
Rupi (Pääru Oja) is caught between two conflicting worlds. He works down a mine ran by Kari (Tommy Korpela) and supplies his co-workers with drugs at Kari’s behest. He also helps with the reindeer herd of his indigenous father Oula (Sulevi Peltola). Mine owners in the region have steadily been stripping away the natural resources, and Kari is planning to sell to a Chinese conglomerate. Elsewhere, the icy Riita (Laura Birn) is trapped, both in the town and in her relationships with failed rock musician Lievonen (Elmer Bäck, Sergei Eisenstein in Peter Greenaway‘s Eisenstein in Guanajuato). She shares a flirtatious friendship with Rupi that may hint at something deeper, but she has also attracted the attention of Kari, and he is willing to employ devious methods to win her.
Despite the sheer expanse of his surroundings, Õunpuu wastes no time in establishing how trapped and enclosed are his characters. Not just in the obvious setting of the increasingly dangerous mine – which does a lot of symbolic heavy lifting – but in the broken down, abandoned bus in which Rupi and Riita take shelter while they share a cigarette, the tin can caravans in which the miners live, the bottom of endless bottles. Kari contributes to this by throwing drunken parties and feeding his workers pills until they rattle, in order that they stop questioning the conditions in which their working or discover his plans that will throw them into the further trap of unemployment and economic uncertainty.
The film is also littered by interesting variations on the familiar western staples: the rowdy but run-down boozer is every inch the last chance saloon, the phenomenal Korpela is the cunning and cruel face of the new world, a Nordic take on the oil tycoon, or the rapacious railwayman, Riita is the calculating saloon madam, Rupi the taciturn anti-hero. The tropes are uprooted and grafted in this unfamiliar vista perfectly. The Last Ones also impresses visually and aurally. Sten-Johan Lill‘s crepuscular palette captures the sense of rural alienation yet also the astonishing beauty of the landscape. Synth veteran Sven Grünberg produces an incongruous but successfully ominous electronic score pressed between a series of pop and rock staples like Roxette, Bob Dylan, and a wonderfully on-the-nose bar room cover of John Lennon‘s ‘Working Class Hero‘.
If only the film didn’t collapse in on itself like Kari’s mine continually threatens to do. That it fails to retain the hair trigger tension of its first two acts is no surprise, but The Last Ones folds under its own weight, expends its considerable storage of menace and vengeance, and then proceeds to limp spent to the end, trying to wrap itself in the torn vestiges of its discarded nuances. In its defence, as it all comes crashing down, one character bows out in one of the finest instances of badass bravado in recent memory, a scene almost worth admission on its own. For the most part, Õunpuu is more successful in building mood and characters that become more complex as they’re boiled like frogs. Still, The Last Ones is a hugely atmospheric Nordic take on the classic frontier western.
Screening as part of Glasgow Film Festival from Fri 26 Feb 2021