Unusual for noir, this atmospheric film opens with a good death: comfortably medicated in a hospital bed, surrounded by family to sooth fears, and finally buried with respect. Unfortunately, the deceased is a five-year-old girl, struck down by a rare heredity condition. Her grief-stricken father, Örn, applies on the eve of her death to work in Iceland’s massive genetic research database, but is he driven to fight similar diseases in her memory, or desperate to prove his DNA is not the cause of her suffering?
Elsewhere, an old man named Holsborg dies badly: bludgeoned with an ashtray and left to rot, despised by those who knew him, child pornography still glowing on his monitor. The only possible witness – a pilot, one of his long-suffering neighbors who despised the old man for the stench of his unit that filtered through the entire building – displays no regret that he was too drunk to recall anything about the shady character he saw outside the man’s apartment. Erlendur, the senior detective, finds only one useful clue (and sole hint of the man’s humanity) amid the squalor: a Holga photograph of a child’s gravestone, buried in 1974.
The action takes place in the cruellest last-winter month, a time that can only be endured while the promise of spring’s new life seems ever farther away instead of mere weeks. It’s appropriate for a film that turns around the ambiguity of new life, the pure innocence and potential an infant represents set against both the hypocritical social mores that condemn the female desire that conceives them and the chance the infant’s life could be painful and brief.
The chance inherent to recombinant DNA reproduction becomes a morality play, the sins of the father literally passing on to the son. In a society that cleaves without irony to the virgin/whore complex, arrest and prosecution for rape is very difficult; one flirtatious young woman left badly beaten is treated terribly by a bent cop, who refuses to pursue her case and destroys the only evidence. A mother allows her grown son to believe he is the product of rape instead of adultery, because to admit that she made the wrong decision when isolated, lonely, and teetering into alcoholism would destroy her family. Both encounters produce children who carry a DNA mutation that can cause fatal brain tumors, both leading to the death of beloved young daughters. Sex itself becomes an enemy, as if the children they produced could have been separated from that process somehow, and thus been healthy.
Holsborg is not killed for raping a woman but for passing his self-destructive DNA on to his daughter and granddaughter, both referred to as “angels” – women too young to be caught in the virgin/whore trap. His murderer loathes himself not as the biological child of a rapist but as a carrier of this dead-end genetic material. Where the clear-headed response would be to get a vasectomy, he executes the gene – himself and Holsborg – as punishment for the “murders” of his daughter and half-sister.
With one exception, the mothers here experience only heartbreak. Their children are the result of rape, adultery, or prostitution; they die cruelly young or grow into degenerate criminals. Next to this, the film presents three father figures, easily sorted into good, bad, and ugly.
The bad father is Holsborg, obviously, a feckless criminal who fathers offspring thoughtlessly and sometimes forcibly. The hidden picture of his daughter’s grave hints at a sense of loss, or at least sentimentality, toward the child he knew of, but he certainly provided no support. And while learning of another child when the grown man has broken into your house to threaten your life isn’t likely to provoke a Hallmark moment, he proves to be exactly the monster his son expects, albeit an aged and broken-down grotesque. The son, Örn, is the ugly father figure, who has been twisted by grief and comes to an end his daughter surely would not have wanted.
The good father, however, is the best dad since Atticus Finch (albeit from a very different culture). As the film begins, the detective Erlendur has lost his grown daughter to drug addition and prostitution. The photos he still displays show she was once his angel, young and innocent, but is now just a weapon for criminals to taunt him with. There’s a certain comfortable savagery in his nature, expressed in the way he rips into his dietary staple (boiled sheep heads, an Icelandic delicacy), but little else slips past his impenetrable iciness. He reflects some of nature’s harshness, tearing down his cocky and incompetent young partner, who will either learn and grow into the role or be forced out of police work entirely. The team of police is a microcosm of the nature’s grand experiment: what will thrive and reproduce, and what will die on the vine?
As a father, he manages to provide both tough and unconditional love. He refuses to fund his daughter’s drug habit even when she confesses that she’s pregnant with no idea who the father may be. But once she’s decided to get clean and asked to move back in with him to have and raise the baby, he repeatedly rescues her without judgement. He is the ultimate protector, strong enough to beat any monster – first, the brutal serial killer who insults her, then her own addiction and the young thugs sent to collect her debt, and finally negotiating a payment plan with her dealer. Instead of simply escalating the violence, he ends it – refusing to respond to taunts and give her enemies that power and, after he’s broken one of the thugs’ legs and left him crippled in a stairwell, calling an ambulance and putting a pillow under his shattered knee while they wait together for it to arrive. While the viewer expects her to end as a victim by the third act, he instead creates a truly safe space for her.
When the resolution of the case has finally broken his heart, Erlendur turns to his daughter for comfort and understanding, letting them both be more fully human. He lets her in to his fallible side, to admit to both of them that he is not always strong and not always right, while she steps into the responsible role she’ll need to move from sheltered daughter to adult and parent. Far from Jar City’s raw genetic material, this damaged mother and this damaged child will survive and thrive, by chance and a father’s love.