In the midst of an apocalyptic war her side seems sure to lose, Caroline (Noomi Rapace) is tasked with joining a desperate mission with the potential to end the conflict: to cross an ice covered sea and deliver two mysterious containers to an army base. When she gets there, she is promised to be re-united with her lost daughter Vanja (Stella Marcimain Klintberg), but the journey will be fraught with loss, danger and betrayal.
I haven’t seen Rapace in much recently, but she has been on my radar before from What Happened To Monday? to Close. While I have not always had the highest opinion of her performances, she has an ability to take on traditional action hero fare but also retain a emotional vulnerability that marks her out. She’s the undoubted highlight of Black Crab (or Svart Krabben in the original Swedish, from a book by Jerker Virdborg), a film that mostly fails to live up to the promise of its lead or its setting.
Rapace is something else though. In the “present” of the film she’s able to get across this great sense of numbness in the character, as she strolls, dead-eyed, through this awful landscape. Near the beginning a woman approaches her asking if she can inquire for a husband sent to the same military HQ: Caroline casually tells her he’s not coming back, with a tone of sheer dismissiveness. What follows is an apparent masterclass in the depiction of a military professional as cold and calculating as the ice she is skating.
Only there is more to her than that. Caroline has left behind a daughter we see in flashbacks, the protection of which was the one thing that retained a bit of humanity for her: absent that, she has become the deadly fighter we see in the present. The drive to find Vanja again sends Caroline hurtling ever forward, and the intense fragility that can only be found in a desperate mother mixes very will with the special forces operative that we see most of the time. Rapace is excellent, and but for her the film would have been much less enthralling from the off: she can do a lot with very limited lines (this also helps with the foreign nature, with not a whole load of subtitles to read really). The rest of the cast is only so-so, with Caroline accompanied in her mission of an motley crew of military fiction serotypes.
The setting is great though, a hellish, grey glimpse of a world bowed under by war, where every character has lost something dear to them. We don’t know why this war is being fought, but it really doesn’t matter: it’s clear that it is existential, and that’s enough. I was reminded of two very different kinds of media in the course of Black Crab: Half-Life 2 in the way that we see this war-torn wreck of a landscape where people have gotten to inured to the devastation that it is just a normal part of life, and Dunkirk, in the way that the bad guys are merely “the enemy”, faces covered by masks or behind helicopters, more of a narrative prop than a full-on antagonist (given the time of the film’s release it is inevitable that your mind drifts to Russia, but Black Crab makes no genuine effort to identify the antagonists).
There were probably more interesting stories to be told in such a world, and I do honestly feel that Black Crab lets itself down through an adherence to tropes in certain instances, and a rushed feeling through several episodic moments, that do not get the time to breathe that this world had in the first act. An early scene where Caroline has to fight her way out of an unexpected urban ambush from civilians of her own side is very well executed, a Tarantino-aping dinner scene in a cabin later less so for example: the first is part of an excellent, and patient, bit of scene setting, the latter blows its load too early for a moment of tension and betrayal to really work as well as it could have.
Black Crab winds its way down to a not especially great finale, most notably after Rapace’s last opportunity to showcase how good of an actor she is when she is confronted by a duplicitous Admiral. From there one will inevitably have another video game franchise in mind, namely The Last Of Us, in terms of how the finale proceeds, right down to a somewhat miserable conclusion. It matches the setting though, and Black Crab really isn’t interested in orchestrating any manner of happy ending: instead it leans into the idea that war will make corpses of us all, just after it destroys the moral centre of either side engaging in the practise.
Director Adam Berg is far from a major name in film, known mostly for his “Carousel” advertisement for Phillips, and for directing music videos, but his feature debut showcases chops for the longer format. Black Crab looks good, and can be chalked up as one in a growing list of films that was probably shot with the big screen in mind but has to settle for the small one. This reality perhaps does not do Black Crab justice: Berg really goes all out, in scenes set in dilapidated looking cities, grim military bases under fire, and then the vastness of the ice, a cold, almost sterile, environment, with landmarks that tie into the larger setting: a half-submerged plane, an abandoned cruise ship and a mass grave, with the last an especially potent waypoint for the team. The inhumanity of war is captured very well by the cinematography in such scenes, with people reduced to burdens, mouths to feed or just things to trip over. Action scenes are limited, as they should be, as this is not really an action thriller.
So, it is a mixed bag. Rapace is an actor that I will probably watch in just about anything at this point. The ambiance of the film is really good, with the first act a real triumph in universe creation and scene setting. But from there Black Crab falls down: in a hum drum plot with predictable beat and a predictable ending; in a disappointing supporting cast; and in its inability go be as patient with the second and third acts as it is with the first. Given events in the eastern side of Europe recently Black Crab has a timely feeling, but that, even with Rapace, isn’t enough to get it through. It has to be only a part recommendation.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).