The Thin Bla Streg
Frederik Louis Hviid and Anders Olholm (O with a line through it)'s Shorta opens in disquieting and uncompromising style, depicting a young Black man being aggressively restrained by the police. 'I can't breathe!' he repeatedly cries. The fact that this is all happening in Danish makes it slightly less provocative, perhaps, but likely not much. It's followed by a sequence depicting a heavily-armed police officer aboard a helicopter observing the activities of the inhabitants a bleak-looking housing estate, rather like a soldier observing occupied territory: the tone is definitely more like that of a war movie than a police thriller (which is what this nominally is).
Although we are in Copenhagen, the setting is not explicitly made clear, perhaps intentionally: the implication possibly being that this is a story that could take place in any large western city. The action proper begins a few days later: the youth from the start is in critical care in the hospital and large parts of the city are experiencing elevated levels of tension. It's in this atmosphere that principled young cop Jens Hoyer (O with a line through it) is assigned to go on patrol with his older colleague Mike Andersen (Jacob Lohmann). Andersen is a hard man, set in his prejudices; he wields his authority like a baton. Initially the two of them struggle to bond.
The events of their patrol lead them into an estate named Svalegarden, home to many immigrant communities – one of the areas they have been advised to steer well clear of. Seemingly on a whim, Andersen stops to make an illegal and demeaning search of a passing Asian teenager, Amos (Tarek Zayat), angering other local youths – Hoyer backs his colleague up nevertheless. But when it looks like Amos has attacked their squad car in response, they arrest him.
Then news comes through that the teenager from the start of the film has died of his injuries and all uniformed police should pull out of the neighbourhood. It's too late: their car is wrecked and the duo face the challenge of getting out of the ghetto in one piece, dragging their prisoner with them. Only now does it become apparent that the two have been partnered up for a reason: Hoyer was a witness to the events which led to the youth's death, and Andersen is under orders to ensure his testimony to the upcoming enquiry shows the police in a favourable light, regardless of the truth of the matter…
Shorta, in case you were wondering, is an Arabic word meaning police; the film is also trading in some territories under the title Enforcement (which is a bit fridgey; the cinema I saw it at was using one title on its website and the other at the actual venue, which confused me no end). To be honest, Shorta is a fairly fridgey title too, although I suppose it could be meant ironically – one of the themes of the film is just how far short the police fall, in relation to the standards one might expect of them.
In any case, we are in relatively familiar territory here: this is a movie in the time-honoured 'cops in extremis' genre, which dates back at least as far as Assault on Precinct 13 and includes more recent high-concept offerings like The Raid. It's also not the first film to be driven by the clash between a young and relatively idealistic cop and an older one whose effectiveness means the authorities overlook how corrupt he has become (I'm thinking here of films like Training Day, though I suppose the same dynamic is there as far back as Touch of Evil). What adds something to the mix is the level of social awareness in Shorta; the film it most closely resembles is Les Miserables, which came out in the UK last summer.
Shorta has drawn some quite negative notices from some outlets, certainly in America, with critics suggesting it's a clumsy attempt to comment (or even cash in) on the Black Lives Matter protests of last year. The long lead times of movies leads me to doubt this, to be honest; it also overlooks the fact that immigration and the administration of so-called 'ghetto' estates is a live issue in Danish politics.
Nevertheless, the film engages with these issues, even if all it really does is suggest that they are painfully complex and not easily resolvable. The action of the movie comes first, which is as it should be, and this is certainly well-handled, gripping stuff, with the two cops' plight and their degenerating relationship generating plenty of tension; the bursts of violent action punctuating the movie are convincingly gritty as well as gripping (not a film for dog lovers, I should say).
The first half of the movie barely puts a foot wrong, and I was all set to bemoan the fact that such an effective and engaging thriller was only playing in a small number of art-house theatres, simply because of what Bong Joon-ho has called the 'one-inch barrier' of subtitles. But to keep the plot moving, an increasing number of dubious contrivances and coincidences begin to appear, which threaten to tip the movie over into melodramatic territory. Many stories incorporate unlikely events to some degree or other; the question is whether the pay-off they facilitate is sufficient to make the audience give the film a pass on this front.
If Shorta had concluded with an ending that both satisfied and managed to say something insightful and significant about the themes it covers – assimilation, the role of the police in society, the conflict between loyalty and principle, the extent to which enforcers are both brutal and brutalised – then I would happily have agreed that some of the contortions in the script were justified. And the end of the story is effective and reasonably satisfying (though it will hardly count as a spoiler if I suggest it's not the most optimistic of outcomes) – it's just not clear what the thesis of the film is, beyond the simple message that policing in these kinds of situations is a messy, ugly business, with flawed people on both sides and no happy endings in sight for anyone.
It's a shame, because Shorta looks very much like a film which wants to be something beyond a simple cop thriller. It's a very effective cop thriller, tense, exciting, and well-played by all the leads. But if it has a deeper message then it's not at all clear what that is. This is still an accomplished and extremely watchable movie, though.