EASY MONEY is an ironic title for a sharply observed, tonally complex story of people who don’t fall into easily definable categories. Money is the driving force in all their lives, but they are not all people who have sold their souls for it. There is nothing so cliché in this Swedish import starring Joel Kinnaman, known in this country for, among other things, his finely shaded performance on AMC’s “The Killing”. Rather, they have compartmentalized their humanity, that leads to crushing contradictions more dangerous and insidious than the external dangers that come from leaving the security of order and honor behind.
Working in his other native language, with subtitles for those not fluent in Swedish, does nothing to detract from the richness of Kinnaman’s performance. As J.W., an ambitious graduate student of economics, his child-like longing for the moneyed world of his friends makes him a sympathetic character even as his choices become increasingly ill-advised. He is smooth, as he moves between the elegant dinners and dissolute parties of his rich friend, the grungy streets where he drives a taxi to earn extra money, and the hushed classrooms where received wisdom becomes less and less relevant to J.W.’s real-world situations. But his smoothness has a few rough edges. Quick with an riposte among the idle rich he tries to emulate, he is less successful keeping his fictitious back story straight with the angelic but earthy Sophie (Lisa Henni), the object of his carnal and social desires. Eager to make a buck, he is less than comfortable while keeping his cool amid the immigrant community that looks to him for a similar entrée into Swedish life to the one that J.W. seeks to gain among the aristocracy through his connections there.
Rigorous in his grooming, pulling buttons off a new shirt to replace them with better ones, brilliant in his studies, J.W. is not above doing jobs for his boss at the taxi company that brook no questions, as long as the cash is right. And it is very right when he is asked to bring in Jorge (Matias Varela), newly escaped from prison and with the Serbian mob after him. The money considerable, at least from J.W.’s standpoint, with the danger on a par with it. The slippery slope that started with writing papers for fellow students is negotiated with nary a second thought when his expertise in the world of high finance comes in handy for the major drug deal in which Jorge figures prominently. Taking advantage of insider knowledge from his posh friends, he works illegal magic for the drug dealers, and doesn’t bat an eye when the old money with which he is dealing acquiesces to a convenient fiction about what is actually happening, and asks for a cut of the cash.
All well and good as far as story, but it is way the story is told, with characters whose hearts are tender even if their consciences are impaired. And at the center is Kinnaman, working with a director, Daniel Espinosa, that makes every moment one of suspense, whether the scene be one of a social faux pas narrowly averted, or of a friend about to be beaten to a pulp. The way Kinnaman puts his hair just so, checks the effect in the mirror, and strides out into the world with a purposeful gait and the studied air of a man who knows what he is about, while at the same time giving away that tiny but telling soupcon of playing a part rather than living a life The slow metamorphosis of wide-eyed delight as the world he wants seems to be his for the taking that narrows as he begins to sense that nothing was as it seemed, and his best advice comes from the least likely source in the least likely of situations.
EASY MONEY is taut, tense, and exquisitely spare. An exercise that is a character study of the first order masquerading as a highly effective thriller, using the tropes of that latter genre with a scalpel-like precision, and the severity of an Old Testament deity, it dissects the perils of pursuing form, not substance.