It was hard to explain to friends exactly why I kept watching AMC’s The Killing all the way through the recent, justly derided Season 2 finale. There are so many worthy shows I don’t follow, and so many other choices for what to do with one’s Sunday night, that by the end it was almost unseemly to keep clinging to the moldering corpse of Veena Sud’s once-promising detective drama. (Without spoiling the identity of Rosie Larsen’s killer, I can say this: Col. Mustard would have had more plausible motivations.)
In truth, the only reason I kept watching was Joel Kinnaman. As Holder, the jittery, drug-addicted partner of a morose female homicide cop (Mireille Enos), this 32-year-old Swedish-American (who will star in next year’s Robocop remake) sliced his way through the screen. The slouchy, loose-limbed Kinnaman could micro-shift between cracking wise and communicating complex, contradictory emotions. In fact, he always seemed to be feeling at least two things at once. Kinnaman is such a good actor that he conned me into believing his character had secrets far more interesting than anything that was actually happening on the show.
So Easy Money, the hit 2010 Swedish thriller that is only now getting its U.S. release, pretty much had me at “Joel Kinnaman.” And he doesn’t disappoint: As a social-climbing business student mixed up in a mob scheme, Kinnaman is transfixing. But this tense, gritty, often heartbreaking underworld drama is much more than just a showcase for the actor’s talents. Based on a bestselling novel by criminal lawyer Jens Lapidus—unfortunately, the American distributors chose not to stick with the catchy original title, Snabba Cash—Easy Money weaves three interrelated storylines into a broad, thematically ambitious portrait of Stockholm’s ethnically divided criminal culture.
Director Daniél Espinosa (his last film was Safe House, which featured Kinnaman in a small role) seems as interested in emotion and character as he is in car chases and gun battles, not that this movie skimps on either: Easy Money’s big heist scene is the only action set piece so far this year that was so suspenseful I could feel my heartbeat in my ears.
The film opens with a bravura prison-break sequence: Small-time Chilean drug runner Jorge (Matias Padin Varela) pulls off an unlikely and thrilling getaway, only to be denied shelter by his wary pregnant sister (Annika Ryberg Whittembury). Once he’s on the outside, Jorge’s insider knowledge of the Stockholm cocaine trade soon makes him a target for a gang of Serbian mobsters led by the merciless Radovan (Dejan Cukic).
Meanwhile, dressed-to-the-nines J.W. (Kinnaman) leads a double life, attending finance lectures by day and partying with rich young bankers by night. To finance his appetite for luxury, J.W. drives a cab, often using it to run errands for his bosses, a shady pair of Arab criminals (Mahmut Suvakci and Fares Fares). At their behest, J.W. shelters Jorge—who’s been beaten nearly to death by Radovan’s thugs—in his cramped, shabby dorm room. As Jorge recovers, he and J.W. become friends (for whatever friendship means in this movie’s anxious, double-crossing world) and agree to collaborate with the Arabs in a daring drug operation. They’ll attempt to intercept a huge shipment of coke being smuggled in from Germany. If they succeed, they’ll take over the city’s drug trade.
But the Serbs are also interested in recruiting the whiz kid J.W., whose combination of financial-industry savvy and adjustable scruples is gangster catnip. Radovan and his men approach the kid about introducing them to the CEO of a failing bank they hope they can turn into their own money-laundering operation. Torn between two crime syndicates, feelin’ like a fool: J.W. may be stepping into a net completely of his own making, but that doesn’t make it any less tense to watch it inexorably tighten around him.
Easy Money—which is in Swedish, Spanish, Serbian, and Arabic, with English subtitles—is suspenseful and sleek, but not crisply edited. Too much time is devoted to a romance between the status-obsessed J.W. and a serene old-money beauty (Lisa Henni) who knows nothing about his unsavory nighttime hobbies. Another subplot, about a Serbian thug (Dragmir Mrsic) who’s suddenly forced to take sole custody of his 8-year-old daughter, hammers a little too insistently on the heartstrings, but it accomplishes its goal of making even the trigger man for the bad guys someone we can understand and care about.
This is what feels novel about Easy Money. While it’s morally satisfying as a cautionary tale about greed, hubris, and evil (not to mention a bleak allegory of financial-industry rapaciousness), its characters aren’t hastily differentiated stock types—the smart guy, the stooge, the sadistically smirking villain. They’re struggling, flawed individuals with hopes and dreams and really fucked-up ideas of how to achieve them. Genre films this smart and character-driven don’t come along often on either side of the Atlantic. So go see Joel Kinnaman and Easy Money before the Zac Efron-starring American remake comes out. You’ll be glad you went with the import.