The new crime drama Outlier sees Norwegian criminologist Maja Angell (Hanne Mathisen Haga) studying for her PhD in London when she gets word of the brutal murder of a young woman in her tiny hometown in her country’s far north. When the police announce that they’ve arrested a suspect, she knows they’ve got the wrong guy.
Maja has strong theories on why men murder women, and we’re told they’re rooted in her own personal experience. She returns home to dig into the case, much to the consternation of both local police chief Johan (Stein Bjørn), who resents the intrusion, and her father Anders (Erik Smith-Meyer), who is only one of the residents who seem worried some old secrets might be pulled to the surface by her nosing around. Which we know, as veteran Nordic noir fans, is almost certainly going to happen.
Not so much a Western as a Northern
We’ve loved our Nordic noir ever since we were knee high to Jo Nesbo and so we understand that, when you boil it down to the basics, the appeal is how the grim and gritty subject matter contrasts with the wintry-clean, ostensibly sedate, urban setting: there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark (or Norway in this case), and we must make a deep incision through the respectable, socially progressive surface of Scandinavian society to dig into the nasty stuff below.
Nordic noir draws deeply from the well of hardboiled crime fiction and film noir – it’s right there in the name – but something interesting happens when you take a Scandi crime story out of the city and set it in the back blocks – the urban noir becomes a rural Western – or perhaps, with more geographical accuracy, a Northern.
Clarice Starling or Wyatt Earp
Our protagonist Maja doesn’t look like a cowboy hero at first glance; she’s more of a Clarice Starling type, a brilliant investigator driven by personal tragedy and hindered by male officials who don’t see her value or respect her insight. But in the narrative she functions like any sheriff tasked with cleaning up a tough, or a wandering gunslinger returning home to find the bad guys have moved in: her job is to civilise the joint. The difference is in the iconography; Maja carries a notebook rather than a six-gun, and the remote back blocks of Norway are no place for a Stetson, but the story is, on a fundamental level, the same.
Outlier directors Kristine Berg, Arne Berggren and Ken Are Bongo are plugged into this, and episodes are frequently shot like a Western, with long lingering shots of vast landscapes contrasted against tight closeups of the characters. There’s even a touch of Ennio Morricone in the musical score, with long, quavering notes like lonely howls evoking the mythic deserts of Leone’s Italian horse operas: the temperature and foliage might be different, but the desolation is the same.
Ride ‘em, reindeer-boy
What really pops is how Outlier deals with themes of colonisation, just like Westerns do. Your traditional Western is a colonisation tale (or invasion, if you like) told from the point of view of the coloniser – it’s cowboys and Indians, as we no longer say, and the cowboys are the good guys. We don’t tend to think of colonialism being a thing in Europe – Europeans are the ones who do the colonising, right? But Outlier, like Midnight Sun before it, deals with the culture of the Sami people, an Indigenous ethnic group found in the northern reaches of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and parts of Russia. While Maja pursues her line of investigation, a Sami teen from a family of reindeer herders, Elle (Eila Ballovara Varsi), a friend of the victim, is doing her own digging. The Sami have historically been discriminated against and disenfranchised in ways not a million miles away from the plight of Native American peoples, and the inclusion of Sami culture here can’t help but remind the viewer of recent efforts to address Native American issues in more recent Western fare.
With that in mind, the best points of comparison for Outlier might not be The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or Wallander, but American filmmaker Taylor Sheridan’s modern Westerns, such as Yellowstone and especially Wind River, which dealt with the murder of a young woman on Indigenous land. They say not all heroes wear capes, but for our purposes here, perhaps it’s not all cowboys wear hats.
Outlier is now streaming at SBS On Demand.