It’s become something of a worn out joke to claim Die Hard is your favourite Christmas movie – the joke being that a violent action movie is about as far from the stereotypical “Christmas movie” as you can get, even if it’s set during Christmas. But there’s a hint of truth to it as well: why shouldn’t we have the option of watching a Christmas story that’s about more than feel-good clichés? The good news this year is that the Scandi-noir drama Modus is exactly the show you’re looking for.
It’s Christmas time in Sweden, and that means one thing: snow, and plenty of it. Which is fine if you’re staying in a fancy Stockholm hotel, but not so great if your home is a caravan in the woods. Which is where we first meet a mysterious “Caravan man” (Marek Oravec) who receives a call that summons him to the aforementioned fancy hotel where he promptly murders a celebrity chef. There’s one problem: while disposing of the body he’s seen by the teenage Stina (Esmeralda Struwe), who he now has to silence.
Well, actually he doesn’t. Stina is on the spectrum and has trouble with words, which means she can’t call for help as he slowly chases her out onto the road – and then saves her at the last minute from an oncoming truck. He didn’t really have a choice, what with Stina’s mother Inger (Melinda Kinnaman) seeing what was about to happen – and that’s a bigger problem than he suspects.
You see, Inger Johanne Vik is a former profiler for both the FBI and the Swedish National Bureau of Investigation turned author, and when you’ve written a book titled The Criminal Soul there’s a very good chance you’re going to be the first person called when a mysterious high profile death takes place. The twist is, the murder Inger’s called in to consult on isn’t the chef’s, but that of a high profile female bishop, who was murdered in a park after giving a sermon - in a church seemingly attended by every single cast member – calling for tolerance.
The Christmas setting might seem a bit random at first – thankfully the murders aren’t Christmas themed or anything; this isn’t a Scandi-noir version of Silent Night, Deadly Night – but it makes its presence felt in a variety of subtle ways. The horror of the celebrity chef’s female partner roaming the hotel trying to get help in finding her girlfriend is underlined by the holiday season; finding the murdered body of your lover is pretty much the worst way to realise you’ll be spending Christmas alone. Not to mention the Christmas crowds provide plenty of opportunity for the killer to pop up behind Stina and warn her to keep quiet or he’ll make sure every night is a silent nights.
Christmas is a time when family issues come to the fore, and Inger has a big one: when she was working as a professional profiler in the US, she was so wrapped up on her work that she forgot her children and left them on the subway. That’s why she’s gave it up for writing books, and why she’s reluctant when cop (and possible love interest?) Ingvar Nyman (Henrik Norlén) asks for her help on the bishop case. But as it becomes clear that Stina saw something at the hotel, she starts to wonder if the two murders might be linked – and then there’s a third murder, and a pattern of hate crimes starts to become clear.
What follows over Modus’ eight episodes is the kind of twist-packed drama that’s perfect holiday binge-viewing. Inger’s a great lead (her crime-solving skills feel plausible, rather than just random leaps to keep the story moving), the rest of the cast are well crafted, and there’s a big thick blanket of Christmas snow over everything just to give it that chilly holiday feel.
Most important of all, while the central mystery keeps the surprises coming without getting too trashy – no surprise there, as it’s adapted from a novel by Anne Holt, a former Norwegian justice minister – the story as a whole isn’t afraid to put a fresh spin on things. Inger’s relationship with her daughters is central to the story, making a refreshing change from the usual bitter loners. And for once, the story isn’t a whodunit: the killer is the first person we meet. Of course, that doesn’t answer the question why…
Modus is streaming now at SBS On Demand: