Shot in steely blues and grays, Baltasar Kormákur's frigid film noir Jar City transplants the police procedural to the land of the midnight sun. The story, taken from a popular crime novel by Arnaldur Indridason, hits too many familiar beats, but Kormákur flavors his familiar dish with beauty shots of Iceland's pitted landscape and the occasional cooked sheep's head.
The first body that turns up onscreen isn't the elderly lowlife whose murder prompts the film's central investigation; it's a little girl, laid naked on a slab after dying from a rare genetic disease. That arresting image sets a stage for a story that turns on tortured family relationships and the rot that's passed from one generation to the next. (The movie's original title is Tainted Blood.)
Upon first sight of the murder victim whom the film does focus on, detective Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson doesn't bother to conceal his weary resignation. "A typical Iceland murder," he says. "Messy and pointless." But a photograph of a 4-year-old girl's grave marker, taped to the bottom of a locked drawer, leads the police to a pair of deaths 30 years in the past: the girl's, apparently of natural causes, and her mother's suicide. As he literally exhumes the past, uncovering evidence of what may be a long-buried conspiracy involving a crooked small-town cop and "the most notorious manic in Iceland," Sigurdsson is also struggling with decay in his own family. His drug-addicted daughter (Águsta Eva Erlendsdóttir) announces she's pregnant, begs him for money, and, when that fails, moves into his bachelor flat.
Kormákur wrings the occasional moment of black humor from the generally dour proceedings: When Sigurdsson researches the dead girl's parentage, he finds her father's name has been left off the records, which he's told occurs in one of three cases: "rape, incest, or a foreigner." But his bumbling partner (Björn Hylnur Haraldsson) is a rote irritation. Kormákur gives signs of trying to rethink the genre, but he's starting too far down the line. Eventually, some mysteries become clear, but Kormákur's attempts to be crafty are too often clumsy, and the movie's unmotivated time leaps are close to a cheat. Jar City makes a game try at building a new house from old lumber, but the rot is already in the wood.