Directors: Anders Ølholm, Frederik Louis Hviid
Writers: Anders Ølholm, Frederik Louis Hviid
Starring: Simon Sears, Jacob Lohmann, Tarek Zayat
Duration: 108 mins
BBFC Certification: 15
Anders Ølholm and Frederik Louis Hviid, the co-directors and writers of new Danish thriller Shorta, claim that they don’t consider their film to be political, yet it undeniably starts with a potent political image – two police officers forcibly restraining a male person of colour, pushing his face towards the floor as he screams for help. The connotations here with the murder of George Floyd are unmistakeable. While you could certainly argue that the remainder of the film is more concerned with thrilling its audience rather than sparking vigorous debate, there is no denying the political and social undertones that bubble underneath the film in conjunction with its sustained sense of tense, shimmering violence.
After this brief prologue, we are introduced to Jens (Simon Sears) and Mike (Jacob Lohmann), two cops spending the day on patrol together as anger steadily grows over the arrest and brutal assault of teenager Talib Ben Hassi (who we saw assaulted in the prologue). Due to Mike’s racist profiling of innocent teen Amos Al-Shami (Tarek Zayat) the two cops find themselves in the middle of the sprawling Svalegården Estate when the news of Hassi’s death comes over the radio. This ignites the lurking, pent up rage that has been slowly building among the Estate’s youth. Jens and Mike, finding themselves targeted and trapped, need to fight for their lives in order to escape.
This ‘protagonists trapped in hostile environment’ plot has been successfully used many times before, from John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 all the way up to the criminally underrated Spanish thriller Cell 211. Yet Shorta’s most direct spiritual descendant is Yann Demange’s harrowing and thrilling ‘71, which saw Jack O’ Connell’s young private lost and hunted behind hostile enemy lines during the height of the Troubles in Belfast. Like ‘71, Shorta expands upon a confined and limited siege location, such as a police station, and instead throws its canvas much wider to encompass an entire housing estate. In its way, this kind of environment can feel infinitely more threatening, where danger and death can arrive from any direction at any moment.
Ølholm and Hviid certainly milk this set-up when the time comes but they thankfully take their time getting there. The first (and arguably more effective) portion of the film is given over to a slow, sustained build up of plot and character, where Jens’ more idealistic cop is pitted against the antagonistic racism of his partner Mike. This abrasive quality between the two leads helps to fuel the drama as much as the bubbling undercurrents of racial tension flowing around them as they enter the Svalegården Estate. This slow, steady encroachment of tension established towards the start is brilliantly sustained throughout the entire film, occasionally bursting forth in sudden explosions of anger and violence. Indeed, the script’s master stroke is to ensure that the conflict between the two cops is as much a vehicle for drama and suspense as is their entrapment within the Estate itself (which, to be honest, feels rather flaccid the more you think about it – surely an Estate the size of Svalegården would have more than just one escape route?).
Ølholm and Hviid shoot their film in a rough, loose style that recalls Paul Greengrass more than the slow, studied genius of John Carpenter at his peak, adroitly capturing certain moments with an eye to maintaining maximum suspense, such as one particularly effective scene that sees a pivotal fight witnessed through a toilet cubicle. Yet, throughout the well executed action and thrills, while the script mostly manages to keep you guessing, it is Sorta’s moments of character building that finds the film on less solid ground.
It is not that Sorta does anything bad per se… yet its character development feel rather rote, with the film’s insights into stereotypes more predictable than profound. Who would have thought that a racist cop might actually have some trace of humanity in him after all, or that not all teenagers brought up on Estates are actually criminals? Sorta manages to thrill you one minute, then make you yawn the next as certain cliches are adhered to, where character journeys occasionally feel as ridged as a train pulled along its tracks.
Thankfully, Ølholm and Hviid shake off their shackles as the film races towards its conclusion, where a moment of shock leads the way towards a genuinely harrowing moral dilemma. Indeed, the film’s final moments ensure that, despite the setting and characters, Shorta’s impact is more emotional than political. While the film may not have much of originality to say about the police and minorities, what it does say it says with style and pathos. A taut, riveting ride with an ending that offers no easy answers, Shorta emerges as one of this years most pulse-pounding and gripping thrillers.
Shorta – released in cinemas and digital now.
You can view the trailer for Shorta here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MOH5Hyd_h00