Sisu: All Guts, No Glory

Set in the last days of WWII, Sisu tells the story of Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila), a grizzled prospector who lives a solitary life in desolate Northern Finland. When Aatami finally makes his golden score, he quietly proceeds into town to collect his fortune. However, when he encounters a group of Nazis who steal his bounty and attempt to leave him for dead. But Aatami is no ordinary prospector. Taking on the role of ‘one-man death squad’, he unleashes his vengeance upon his Nazi oppressors with unhinged fury.

Directed by Jalmari Helander, Sisu is a brutal rage-fest that is bound to excite audiences who are looking for some bloody, good fun. It’s no secret that the revenge film has made a massive comeback in recent years. Led by the incredibly successful John Wick franchise, the action genre has become dominated by stories of a solitary man, making his own brand of justice. (In fact, Helander himself has compared the film to the blood-soaked world of Rambo.)

However, what sets this Sisu apart is its heightened level of violence. While Wick may be known for its massive bodycount, Sisu amps up the bloodbath. For example, whereas Wick bounces around the screen with intense choreography, Sisu’s Aatami is much more violent and vicious in his attacks. While there’s no officialtranslation of ‘sisu’, the Finnish word is believed to mean a “white-knuckled form of courage and unimaginable determination in the face of overwhelming odds.” Helander takes this meaning very seriously in his tone and executes it with extreme visuals. This is a film where people do not die so much as they explode. Heads crushed by oncoming vehicles or pieces of men flying through the air are par for the course for Helander’s hero. (In fact, Helander elevates his action to levels that might make the pencil-killing Wick blush.) 

Sisu is a revenge film with a capital ‘R’.

But, if there is a flaw in Sisu, it may lie with Aatami himself. For any anti-hero to seem justified in his actions, there needs to be a certain level of empathy (and even relatability) between the protagonist in the audience. But, here, Aatami is ice cold. Primarily concerned about being left alone and getting back his gold, Aatami unleashes his inner fury upon the Nazis that stand in his path. However, while his cold-blooded nature may give him a certain aura of mystery, it also prevents the viewer from truly connecting with his soul. As such, while Sisu is a grand spectacle for those looking for the thrill of the kill, its hero lacks the empathy of other entries into the genre.

At the same time though, Helander uses the film to ask an important question: Should we consider Aatami a hero at all? In the midst of his trial, the viewer sees him as a man who is being bullied by the historical equivalent of them stealing his (rightfully earned) lunch money. However, Aatami has such fury that burns within him that somehow the film keeps even his most ‘justified’ actions at a distance. (To be fair, it is easier to empathize with someone of this nature when he’s fighting Nazis, arguably history’s greatest villains.) In this film, Aatami may be the reason that we cheer, but he may not necessarily be a man worth cheering for either.

Aatami may be a man of ‘courage’ but he doesn’t seem to be a man of justice. And he seems perfectly fine with that.

With its unleashing of masculine fury upon its evildoers, Helander ensures that Sisu sends a message to those who abuse their power. This is a film that is meant to be a cathartic experience for the viewer of pure, escapist violence. In this way, there’s no question that Sisu is a visual spectacle bound to make audiences cheer both cheer and squirm in their seats. Even so, for those looking for justice, they may find that this quest for gold to be digging in the wrong place.

Sisu is available in theatres on Friday, April 28th, 2023.

Photos courtesy of Lionsgate.

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