Aki Kaurismaki's "Ariel" begins with the closing of a mine in Lapland. On the last day, all the men gather at the top of a stairway as the explosives are detonated and the mine is destroyed. After a few seconds a plume of smoke and dust curls up from below. No sound. Just a little curl of smoke and dust.
This is about as dramatic as "Ariel" ever gets.
Later, Taisto (Turo Pajala), one of the out-of-work miners, is sitting with a friend who feels that, with the mine closed, there's no use going on. With this said, he gives Taisto the keys to his white Cadillac convertible and heads off to the men's room, where he kills himself. Taisto hears the shot, looks into one of the stalls and finds his friend's body. And from the look on his face, you'd think he'd discovered that there was no toilet paper.
To call the 33-year-old Finnish director's style deadpan is to grossly understate the case; comatose would perhaps be a more appropriate word. With few options left to him, Taisto packs his bags and points his big Caddy for Helsinki, where he hopes to find work. What he finds, instead, are hoodlums who take advantage of his guilelessness, knock him on the head and steal his money. From there, things only get worse. Once in town, he finds jobs hard to come by, though he is fortunate enough to meet a disillusioned meter maid named Irmeli (Susanna Haavisto) who, instead of giving him a ticket, tosses her cap into the street and heads off with him for dinner. Afterward, she invites him up for coffee but first asks, "Are you always this confident?"
"No," he answers. "This is the first time."
At first you may have trouble reading the comic inflections in this dour tale of urban alienation. But Kaurismaki has a keen eye for the comedy of desperation. As Taisto's life goes further downhill, landing him first in a flophouse, then in jail for trying to retrieve his money from the punk who attacked him earlier, his expressionless reactions get funnier. Tall and rangy, with his dark hair slicked back behind his ears, Taisto is a heartthrob combination of Job and Gary Cooper. He doesn't smolder, he doesn't emanate, he just ... is.
All of Kaurismaki's jokes are teensy, and you have to look hard for them. His minimalism has been compared to that of Jim Jarmusch, but Jarmusch seems antic in comparison. With Irmeli's help, Taisto and Mikkonen (Matti Pellonpaa), his bespectacled cellmate, bust out of prison and start to work on plans for an escape to Mexico, via a ship named Ariel. In order to pay for their fake passports, they hold up a bank, but they have trouble with the getaway car (it won't go in reverse), and the men who set up the job double-cross them, killing Mikkonen.
These are the action scenes, but Kaurismaki stages them so flatly that they become comic too. What you're aware of throughout all this is how much has been drained out of these scenes, and how much Kaurismaki gets from so little. But you're aware that some of your own pleasure has been drained away too. Still, Kaurismaki is a drolly talented filmmaker; he has the gift of drab.
Ariel, at the Biograph, is in Finnish with subtitles and is unrated.