Friday 3 September 2021

Hostile environments: "Shorta"

Our Danish friends have form with both the gritty urban thriller and the cinematic provocation. Frederik Louis Hviid and Anders Ølholm's Shorta comprises an inner-city runaround, à la Mathieu Kassovitz's eternally influential La Haine, but it's one observed (at least initially) from the POV of the kind of lawmen who've been the face of the country's exportable crime sagas. Given that their film is closely informed by real-life tensions - opening with the image of a young Arab man gasping "I can't breathe" as a phalanx of police officers push him to the floor - Hviid and Ølholm are playing a dangerous game, one that risks accusations of exploitation; even those prepared to offer the film a fair hearing will likely spend the movie waiting nervously for the one false narrative move that leaves the whole looking glib in the extreme, or which renders the editorial null and void. The biggest compliment I can pay Shorta is that this misstep never quite arrives - and God knows it gives itself the opportunities. Hviid and Ølholm usher us out on the first shift following a dubious arrest that's sparked talk of riots (and an internal affairs investigation). Our hopes of surviving unscathed may rest on the square shoulders of upright patrolman Jens (Simon Sears), who claims never to have fucked up on the job. Yet he reveals a somewhat lax attitude to those being held in custody, and looks the other way whenever his openly prejudiced partner Mike (Jacob Hauberg Lohmann) flies off the handle. That proves fateful when an especially heavy-handed stop-and-search on an Arab student, Amos (Tarek Zayat), turns into an explosive incident, trapping both officers, and their young charge, on a housing estate some within the film would doubtless define as enemy territory.

It's a matter of perspectives, then, and Shorta shuffles through a fair few of these over its 100-odd minutes. The trailer surely makes Hviid and Ølholm's film resemble the kind of non-stop action movie that is sporadically pushed forward as a directorial calling card: an Assault on Precinct 13 yanked inside out, with the cops obliged to negotiate this rat-run environment and find a way out of Dodge. Yet the script keeps making time for awkward, bristling, sometimes outwardly sticky interactions: the cops walking into a youth club Jens has been volunteering at, only to find it daubed with ACAB-style graffiti, a brief respite in a convenience store interrupted by a local resident who's understandably sick and tired of all the noise. Things aren't particularly cosy between Jens and Mike, which adds a further internal tension, and eventually results in a knockdown-dragout bathroom brawl. At which point, the film's perspective splits again, acknowledging that two cops working the same job can have very different takes on and approaches to any given crisis. (The title, an Arabic word for the law, proposes its own way of looking at our uniformed protagonists.) If Hviid and Ølholm align themselves with anyone or anything, it's that characteristically Danish need to properly, sometimes bloodily test liberal pieties, and to see how much water these complacent certainties still hold. There's one flagrant plot contrivance - a real case of "of all the homes in all the housing estates" - but the movie only becomes more interesting for it; it's another turn at which these would-be hero cops are confronted with the consequences of their own actions. It also enables the film's most bravura - some will say show-offy - sequence: a frenzied dog attack in a lift, complete with cutaways to the floor indicator's slow descent. (By this point, some viewers will be firmly on the dog's side.) Maybe it's a bit too sprawling to become the remake-ready breakout 2018's The Guilty was, but it's very well marshalled - and good marshalling remains in short supply nowadays, both in our movies and out on the streets.

Shorta is now playing in selected London cinemas, and available to rent via Prime Video and Curzon Home Cinema.

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