Few films can boast as thrilling an opening sequence as Pirjo Honkasalo’s Concrete Night. Without a word of dialogue, the imagery quickly introduces us to our protagonist Simo (Johannes Brotherus), a young teen standing against the backdrop of a city in the dark of night. Soon, an incoming train crashes into the water below and the resulting deluge consumes him. Filmed in vivid black and white, this dream sequence is a portentous sign of things to come in this austere drama.
Simo wakes up, but his reality is no less confounding. As referenced in the film’s title, he lives in the “concrete jungle” of Helsinki with his older brother Ilkka (Jari Virman) and their helpless mother (Anneli Karppinen). This particular day is one of the most significant in their lives. It’s the last day of freedom for Ilkka, who will soon be leaving to serve a prison sentence. On the eve of this occasion, the brothers hit the streets for one last hurrah.
Stately directed, the ensuing plot maintains a dreamlike, mystical aura that mirrors Simo’s jaded confusion. Filled with silent glances it broods pensively with its characters. Curiously, it feels like a distant cinematic relative of David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Though nowhere near as bizarre or obtuse as that formative debut, Concrete Night shares many of that film’s identifying traits. Both films deal in surrealistic sequences, confused protagonists, downtrodden urban settings and dystopian ideas, all with a dreamlike aura from their black-and-white cinematography.
Yet while Eraserhead uses these themes to intentionally bewilder the audience, Concrete Night has a defined narrative arc that requires a different approach. The screenplay is primarily about how Simo views the world and his place in it, influenced significantly by the brother whom he clearly admires. Through the course of the night, Simo emulates and adopts his brother’s tough demeanour to catastrophic ends. The film receives a jolt in its latter stages, as an act of violence hits with the brute force of that crashing train.
Indeed, the film excels in its starkest passages (both brothers do questionable things throughout) but it falters in its more compelling central premise. Too aloof for its own good, the minimal dialogue favors bleak philosophizing over true engagement with our central characters. It’s especially unsatisfying when the excellent chemistry between Brotherus and Virman promises so much more.
But perhaps that’s all there is to Concrete Night – a resolutely cynical coming of age tale. It certainly has the visuals to support its outlook but it leaves you with the impression of a half-baked cinematic gem. Its best moments truly soar but it concludes with the heavy weight of missed opportunities.
Concrete Night is the Finnish submission for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Click here for reviews of other official submissions.