Conspiracy of Faith, A

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/17/16 00:03:28

"Not quite the best, though still a team worth trusting."
3 stars (Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2016 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: There's something kind of strange about an ongoing mystery series about a depressed detective who investigates the most horrifying cases without being able to do much to help. Mysteries, after all, are often meant to be reassuring in some way, that order can be restored from chaos. Religion has much of the same appeal, so there's some interesting work to be done in the latest "Department Q" story, "A Conspiracy of Faith", but the whole is not quite the sum of the parts here as the filmmakers poke at that idea but don't quite elevate the film above the potboiler level.

As this film opens, Assad (Fares Fares) and Rose (Johanne Louise Schmidt) are working Copenhagen's cold-case desk without lead detective Carl Mørck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), who is on leave following another breakdown of the sort that got him assigned to Department Q in the first place. Assad brings him back in when a message in a bottle is recovered and appears to point to a pair of children who were removed from school in Ballerup eight years ago and subsequently dropped off the map. It's fortuitous that that this message has surfaced now; in the town of Skals, Elias Steensgaard (Jakob Ulrik Lohmann) and his wife Rakel (Amanda Collin) are being visited by Johannes (Pål Sverre Hagen), a preacher in their obscure religion, and while he seems nice, their daughter Magdalena (Olivia Terpet Gammelgaard) is instinctively nervous around him, even before he offers her and her brother Samuel (Jasper Friis Møller) a ride home.

Jussi Adler-Olsen's novels are meant to be thrillers more than mysteries, at least based upon the two adaptations I've seen, so it's no surprise that Johannes is up to no good, but he's never quite so interesting a villain as someone with his twisted MO of infiltrating and targeting religious communities should be, and that's the film's greatest weakness - where the previous film had an intriguingly complex backstory, Johannes is just kind of a creep whose present is never fleshed out enough to be interesting and whose past is a series of flashbacks that aren't hefty enough to offer intriguing details until the end, and not much more than a mishmash of details that have shown up in his crimes. Pål Sverre Hagen does what he can in the role - his early scenes as the clearly untrustworthy "father" are obvious, but have a good menace, and he does do a good insane rant - but this guy is just never a worthy adversary.

Of course, one doesn't exactly stick with a crime series for the new criminal mastermind that comes around in each volume, but for the sleuths, and even when not given their best material, Carl and Assad are still a compelling pair of outcasts within the police department, and potentially an interesting contrast to the similarly marginalized communities with which this case will bring them into contact. And while it is undeniably fun to see Assad poke at Carl to try and draw his melancholy partner into the world, there's something clumsy about how he's made to clash with Carl being a particularly nihilistic atheist or Elias not wanting any part of "his kind". Fares Fares is the glue that holds these movies together and he's great here, but even he can only do so much with some lines that can't possibly land without a thud. Nikolaj Lie Kaas doesn't exactly go for subtle as his far less well-adjusted detective, but he does convey the weight that's on him. Together, they don't create an easy partnership, but certainly one that has an interesting give and take.

Nikolaj Arcel, once again, writes the screenplay while Hans Petter Moland takes over as the director, and that sets some high expectations: Moland did the excellent A Somewhat Gentle Man and In Order of Disappearance, while Arcel has an impressive career as well (and is currently writing and directing The Dark Tower). They keep the thin story moving at a good clip, initially finding the moments of levity that get the audience through the movie until it's time to crank up the intensity in the last act, and the action beats are slickly executed. There's a nastiness to the whole thing that can be somewhat off-putting, though - to be expected in a movie about a serial killer of children, obviously, but there's something unsavory about their handling of religion, often wanting to portray followers as easily duped even while implying Carl needs something spiritual in his life.

Maybe if there had been an actual conspiracy in "A Conspiracy of Faith", there would have been more to dig into, both as a mystery and further look at what makes these characters tick. It's probably the weakest of the Department Q films thus far, which is good enough to be a decent afternoon for fans of the series and "Nordic noir" in general, though I hope the next film will be a bit of a rebound.

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