The city in the film title refers to the Iceland plant or factory where gene research takes place.  The jars in the city or plant contain body parts. The company that owned the plant was called de Code Genetics and it existed from 1996 to 2012. De Code Genetics lost money, $530m in fact. Somehow the company was sold for $415m to Amgen, that name is an abbreviated version of Applied Molecular Genetics. Amgen took what they needed from de Code Genetics to help them make profits but when you can lose $530m, and later sell for $415m who cares? We can imagine what Amgen plundered. What was left of de Code Genetics is now owned by a Chinese company called WuXi Pharma Tech. The Chinese paid $65m for the privilege and for whatever it was they discovered amongst the left over jars and body parts. Health, our bodies and what happens to them are big business. Powerful people are interested and want to become global leaders. Whatever our limitations we are numerous and we all have a body which means an awful lot of limbs and organs for geneticists to examine and attend. The powerful want to make a lot of money, and the serious and curious want to do research. They enjoy having a salary and being able to feed a family.

Jar City qualifies as a dark thriller. The people in the film are gloomy and flawed. Living rooms are untidy. The movie is filmed in a dark blue tint by director Amaldur Indriđason. The landscape images have a crisp edge and are clear but darkness is somehow always present, as if it is hiding behind a curtain that has been lifted. The film has an attitude to landscape that is also seen in Australian movies. There is no picturesque solace just relentless mystery, volcanic murmurings and meaningless distance that confines people to 4X4 vehicles. Recently Amaldur Indriđason directed the TV show Trapped. That show was decent. There was more snow in Trapped than in Jar City. In Trapped and amidst all those white hills the lens filter was superfluous. The people, though, are as gloomy and as flawed as they are in Jar City. Anybody would think they were all related. This belief, of course, is why the company de Code Genetics became interested. It had the view that Icelanders had genetic roots that would benefit from being polished.


The criticism of de Code Genetics is muted in the film but it exists. The discontent with genetic research is more obvious in the original novel. For the critics in Iceland the company had a dangerous and divisive notion of what was normal and what constituted deviancy. They established a database that could categorise not just genes but the people who owned them. Because of the promotional publicity, the vision of normality appeared to consist of narrow healthy Icelanders loyal to their country.

Jar City begins and ends with a performance by a police choir. The tune sounds as if it is patriotic. It suggests conformity and national and communal pride. The people in the choir and many of those who are inspired by the music have a group identity that promises the illusion of strength and self-control. These people obey the rules and are rewarded. They have ceremony in their lives. When they die, they will be blessed by the grief of their neighbours in their Iceland homeland and a funeral, a ritual of community that was prepared earlier. The rest, those who are classified as deviants, can be put in jars and used for genetic research. The singing of the police choir continues throughout the soundtrack. It serves as an ironical coda to the grim reality and failure of ordinary lives. The music and the landscape also evoke a mythic mode, a reminder that the heroes of the past were anything but normal and that human tragedy and motives have always been extreme.   The murderous Medea in the play by Euripides is an obvious example.


Nordic Noir is an overrated literary genre that lacks style and often thought but it sells books.   In its favour Nordic writers are good at producing fresh scenarios and dark visions that avoid references to simple notions of good and evil. Rather than point a finger at uncomplicated beasts they attempt to explain what must be the greatest mystery to Scandinavians. Even in a social democratic paradise lives can be dysfunctional and people will still do damage to others. The mystery is explored in their genre fiction and progressive penal institutions.  The success of both persuades them that they are making progress.

Jar City mixes clichés and innovation. There are also a couple of loose ends in the plot. Victims and assassins in the movie are affected by the genetic disorder neurofibromatosis. The impact of the disease is exaggerated in the film. Fatalities are rare. The disease is not cancerous leprosy.  The plot is a little wild but thanks to strong actors the characters feel real. Reykjavik is the kind of oppressive but interesting location that will persuade any cinema audience to suspend disbelief. Mayhem is caused by three men and a corrupt policeman who have an exaggerated sense of entitlement and a psychology that rejects self-criticism and restraint. The murder being investigated by Detective Eriendur occurs thirty years after the initial mayhem. This murderer is a brooder unable to make emotional progress. What his attractive wife sees in him is a moot point. She appears to have no function in the narrative other than as a reminder that the murderer was not a single parent.


The time shift where the murderer and the motive of the crime are revealed is functional but audacious and admirable. The world-weary detective has been seen many times before. But few cynical coppers have been preoccupied with daughters who are promiscuous drug addicts. The young men who take advantage of his troubled daughter jeer at the detective and scream that his daughter is a slut. They may not use the language of the geneticists but she is condemned as a deviant. Despite their willingness to have sex with the daughter the accusatory males regard themselves as normal. Detective Eriendur knows how to respond to criticism. He breaks the leg of one of the accusers.


Detective Eriendur is not condemned in the movie. Legs can be repaired, and his daughter, when not self-destructive, has potential.   Like the rest of us, she needs to share human worth and not the organised gratification designed by those who have the ability to incur half a billion dollars worth of debt. In a memorable scene Detective Eriendur lies down on the sofa next to his daughter. He reveals his vulnerability and how his tough aggression is nothing but armour. We understand the importance of uniforms to policemen and the societies that employ them. If Detective Eriendur and daughter are to survive, they will have to remove the armour they both thought essential. The father will have to respond differently to what he regards as corruption, and the daughter will need to recognise that she is a human being capable of more than gratification and self-destruction. In Jar City gloom is fine but self-hatred is unacceptable. Father and daughter will succeed if they accept that there is no need to worry about judgements as to what is normal and deviant. The geneticists have been warned. No doubt there are schemes for redesigning the human race so it consists only of bland conformists who accept the plans of the powerful. Such schemes have existed for much of human history. This time the science gives the powerful an added edge. No one likes bad dreams and to hear of what the cruel inflict upon the innocent. But without the different and the flawed we all lose the freedom to be ourselves. And without that freedom the casualties will increase and not reduce. More disturbing these human casualties will become sleek and unrecognisable. We will not in the end know what or who should be treated. At the end of the film we see Detective Eriendur in his police uniform and singing in the choir. The expression on his face lets us know that he is different from the other members of the choir. He is no longer persuaded by the normal and he has secrets he will not share with his fellow policemen and policewomen. Meanwhile he has a fragile daughter to support and help discover her potential.

 Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including Horror Pickers a collection of film criticism. His latest novel Choke Bay is available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.