Before jumping to Hollywood with Contraband, Icelandic hyphenate Baltasar Kormákur turned a popular police procedural novel into this riveting crime drama.
9 Jan 2015 - 12:57 PM  UPDATED 16 Aug 2016 - 12:07 PM

The right director adapts the right novel

Arnaldur Indriðason is a celebrated Icelandic crime writer and his 2000 novel M´yrin (literally ‘The Bog’), initially translated into English as Jar City, marries the genre icon of the weary and troubled loner cop with family problems (Ingvar E. Sigurðsson) to the country’s then fascination with the idea that Iceland’s entire population was having their genomes mapped and stored. When the cop tries to connect the dots between the 30-year-old murder of a girl with the recent death of a local low-life, he makes a harrowing discovery. What better local director to adapt Indridason’s novel than Baltasar Kormákur, whose first three films had received acclaim on the international festival circuit.

That genome thing is true

At the end of 1998, a Reykjavik-based biopharmaceutical company called deCODE genetics, Inc. lobbied the Icelandic Parliament to pass the Act on Health Sector Database. If implemented, this archive would have contained the medical records, genealogical strings and genetic information of all Icelanders. For obvious reasons of privacy and forcible consent, the idea was so controversial that the Icelandic Supreme Court shot the whole thing down at the end of 2003. It is against the resistance to the Act on Health Sector Database that a major plot thread of Jar City the novel is based, though little specific background is offered in the film. The company, which has declared bankruptcy, is currently mired in debt and involved in at least one ongoing lawsuit.

The dramatic visuals of northern doom and gloom

Working for the first time with cinematographer Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson, who subsequently shot many of Kormákur’s films, the director infuses Reykjavik and environs with a gritty glow that perfectly matches the bleak and mysterious subject matter. The story’s worldview is equally despairing: “A typical Icelandic murder,” sighs one world-weary cop. “Messy and pointless.”

A third of the population can’t be wrong

During its initial commercial run in Iceland, in excess of 100,000 people bought a ticket to the film. That may not seem like much, but as only around 300,000 people live in the entire country (many of them not near cinemas), the number moves from healthy to extraordinary. No surprise, then, that Jar City remains the most commercially successful Icelandic film of all time.


In 2012, Kormákur rewrote and remade his 2008 smuggling thriller Reykjavik-Rotterdam as Contraband, a Hollywood vehicle for Mark Wahlberg (who subsequently co-starred in Kormákur’s over-the-top action comedy 2 Guns with Denzel Washington). A remake of Jar City in Louisiana has been rumoured for awhile, though Kormákur is currently in post-production on the outdoor adventure Everest with Jake Gyllenhaal (who stepped into the lead when Christian Bale exited to star in Ridley Scott’s just-released Exodus: Gods and Kings). Additionally, Kormákur continues to make features in his native country.


Watch Jar City in full at SBS On Demand:

Kormájur’s earlier and quite funny family comedy 101 Reykjavik (2000) is also available now at SBS On Demand. Click here to watch it.