The latest poker-faced film from Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki shows his wry minimalism hardening into something precious, and not in the sense of a gem. In the third and last installment of his so-called Loser Trilogy, a solitary security guard gets hoodwinked by a femme fatale, beat on by gangsters and bar thugs, and sneered at by both his boss and a loan officer. The fall-guy trajectory includes a quick stretch in jail for the jewel heist our stoic hero didn’t commit — the only time we ever see the poor bastard laugh.
Bresson, Keaton, Jarmusch, and Hopper are a few of the two-syllable names that come up when describing Kaurismaki’s recent films, identifiable at a glance by their red-and-blue palette and laconic performances. But Lights in the Dusk withholds some of the off-kilter poetry and consistent humor that usually grease the wheels as Kaurismaki slides his alphabet-block-like scenes into place. And his dumb-show story-telling here at times suggests the point where “efficient” might actually just be “perfunctory.”
All of which might sound like quibbling over degrees, given how fresh and concise Kaurismaki’s idiom can feel when experienced for the first time. More intriguing is how Lights in the Dusk feels like a dour downshift, emerging especially in glacier-cool shots of a prefab Helsinki, and I’m not sure whether the director’s compassion finds his usual sure footing (though he’s often sentimental). Still, if Lights shows audiences the way back to its far richer predecessors, like The Man Without a Past, then it’s time well spent (and at 78 minutes, not much time at all).