A guardian angel for miserable bastards throughout his native Finland, director Aki Kaurismäki exists somewhere in the comic spectrum between the penniless whimsy of Charlie Chaplin's The Tramp and the minimalist deadpan of Jim Jarmusch. Completing a trilogy that began with Drifting Clouds and The Man Without A Past—called the "loser" trilogy by some, and the Finland trilogy by others but both descriptions cover much of the Kaurismäki filmography—Lights In The Dusk may be the purest, simplest expression of his sensibility to date, which isn't entirely a good thing. Coming after the much more expansive Man Without A Past, which warmly considered a whole community of Helsinki outcasts, this relentlessly pared-down film feels a little arid and rote, too much like Kaurismäki going through the motions. It's as if the director, having spent his career trying new variations on a theme, had just decided to go back to square one.
To his credit, Kaurismäki offers up the loser of all losers in Janne Hyytiäinen, a security guard who's so pitiful that his slack-jawed workmates bust out laughing whenever he enters the room. Desperately lonely, Hyytiäinen prowls the Helsinki bars looking for female companionship, but the women give him the cold shoulder and the proprietors shoo him away. He makes an easy mark for femme fatale Maria Järvenhelmi, a dead-eyed blonde who sidles up to him at a restaurant and eventually worms her way into finding out the security codes for a jewelry heist. As Hyytiäinen's fortunes continue to spiral to new depths, he finds his only friend is the equally lonely cashier (Maria Heiskanen) at an all-night frankfurter stand, but he can't bring himself to accept her sympathy.
Lights In The Dusk plays out in the expected Kaurismäki style, with flavorful musical interludes, great affection for the city's outcasts, and lots of bleakness chased by the faintest sliver of hope. As bad as things get for his hero, there's an agreeable lightness of touch to the film, partly because the audience knows that Kaurismäki is looking out for him and partly because he only slip so much further down the ladder. The director isn't the sort for belly-laughs, but there's bleak comedy in just how little work Järvenhelmi needs to do in order to dupe Hyytiäinen: She doesn't have to sleep with him, she doesn't have to kiss him, and she doesn't even have to laugh at his jokes or carry on a conversation or give him much more than the time of day. It's characters like Hyytiäinen that make Kaurismäki's films so valuable, even when they're as slight as Lights In The Dusk. After all, without Kaurismäki to introduce these lonely, forgotten souls to audiences, who's going to be his friend?