In the Dept. Q Trilogy individual goodness triumphs over rampant evil | Movie Review | Chicago Reader

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In the Dept. Q Trilogy individual goodness triumphs over rampant evil

Nikolaj Lie Kaas stars as a damaged cop reopening the coldest of cases.


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The Dept. Q Trilogy, based on three best-selling crime novels by Danish writer Jussi Adler-Olsen, draws comparisons with Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo franchise: set in Scandinavia and featuring a sullen male protagonist, it's violent, hard-boiled, and psychologically disturbing. But its antihero, a clench-jawed police detective (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), also embodies a belief that individual goodness might be enough to prevail over darkness. "I don't believe in God, I don't believe in jack shit," the detective tells the villain at the climax of the third installment. The villain disagrees: "All your life you've saved people you never met. Of course you believe. I've never met a believer like you in my life."

The films get away with this sort of moralizing because they're so relentlessly bleak and brutal, and because the protagonist is a terse, cynical misanthrope, recently divorced and palpably lonely. (Interviewing a witness at a bar, he informs her that "95 percent of all murders on women are committed by the husband, the boyfriend, or someone they turned down," and then asks to buy her a drink. She declines.) After a gunshot wound to the head, he's been transferred to "Department Q," a basement unit in his Copenhagen police station designated for closing cold cases, but to his captain's chagrin, the nettled detective decides to crack open some of those cases, assisted by his younger, more affable Muslim partner (Fares Fares of Zero Dark Thirty). Their colleagues refer to them as "the Arab and the drunk."

All three films are atmospheric and propulsive, gliding seamlessly through different backstories and points of view. The Keeper of Lost Causes (2013), in which the partners search for a woman who's been missing for five years, is the most formulaic; A Conspiracy of Faith (2016), in which they hunt for a serial kidnapper, suffers from a hammy, unconvincing villain. The Absent One (2014), in which they solve a string of 20-year-old crimes by tracking down a key witness, cuts the deepest because director Mikkel Nørgaard takes the time to develop the detectives, the villains, and the witness (Sarah-Sofie Boussnina as a teenager and Danica Curcic as an adult, both extraordinary); when the climax arrives, its emotion is earned. At one point the detective explains to the witness why he gets up in the morning: "You and all the people who need me." His moral and emotional investment in victims—both his weakness and his greatest strength—is the series' linchpin.  v

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