Concrete Night

Sarah Ward

Showing rather than telling and exquisitely intricate monochrome visuals hold the key to this feature.
Concrete Night

Everything is a little off kilter in Concrete Night. ‘It feels weird, like a dream or something’, says 14-year-old Simo (Johannes Brotherus, Learned by Heart) to his older brother Ilkka (Jari Virman, Fanatics) after the lucid, lurid vision that provides the feature’s opening sequence. The unusual lurks in their claustrophobic apartment and the all-seeing vantage it gives them over a Helsinki neighbourhood that looks both familiar in its slum-like urbanity and alien in its industrial starkness. The ethereal emanates from imagery both precise and poetic in a black, white and grey palette that matches the specificity and surrealism of the film’s atmosphere of unease.


Inside the confines of their meagre home, Simo is both accustomed to living in close quarters with Ilkka and their struggling mother (Anneli Karppinen, TV’s Tehdas), and comfortable with being in his brother’s shadow; however an impending prison sentence will see Simo become the sole man of the house. In their last 24 hours together, they break free of the details of their bland domesticity – the flies that buzz along grimy windows, the cranky cat crawling along cramped kitchen counters, the shared sofa bed, the belongs strewn over every surface – to roam the streets in a final adventure of brotherly bonding and social defiance.

Concrete Night tells of the tragedy of maturing within an environment of fatalism and futility, with Simo a blank slate seeking his own identity and reason for existence, but too easily filled with the wrong ideas and impulses – be it the apocalyptic musings Ilkka imparts, or the invective of hatred he feels towards a peering, leering neighbour – given his tender years and slowly social station. In writer/director Pirjo Honkasalo’s (Ito: A Diary of an Urban Priest) adaptation of the 1981 novel of the same name, co-scripted with the book’s author and his Fire-Eater collaborator Pirkko Saisio, and modernised to contemporary times, the ability to act collides with the inability to effect change with heartbreaking clarity.

Showing rather than telling, exquisitely intricate monochrome visuals hold the key to a feature that pivots between the diffracted and the apparent. The distinctive style is a cypher as much as the characters, every touch delving the viewer deeper into Simo’s diverging mindset. At one end of the scale, his hypnotic visions of water are immediately established in the melancholic opening; at the other end, all things wet emerge as a recurrent motif as rivers call his name and rain streams from the sky. That only a small sliver of difference is evident between his sleeping and waking moments is indicative of the former bleeding into the latter.

The aesthetic complexity only continues throughout the meditative movie’s brief duration, as cinematographer Peter Flinckenberg (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?) never shoots Simo’s face devoid of shading, nor misses an opportunity to follow his feet on their not-so-merry way, making plain the film’s voyage down a dire rabbit hole of his cloudy perception. The penchant for reflections in mirrors, windows, glasses, puddles and any other relevant surface provides more symbols of his fracturing, their repetition – like the impending doom of the narrative – becoming inevitable.

Far from being too obvious, the many expressionistic touches solidify a story that remains inescapably grim in its existential, political and sexual commentary. Still present, though never tempering the pervading brooding, are teasing glimpses of snatched beauty within the stifling bleakness. A similar approach can be seen in the performances, both Brotherus and Virman finding their tone, sticking with it, and offering gradual, earned variations as their protagonists evolve. The ending may be a foregone conclusion, yet Concrete Night builds its many manifestations of mood to pack not just a considerable punch, but a resounding, stinging wallop.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Concrete Night (Betoniyö)
Director: Pirjo Honkasalo
Finland / Sweden / Denmark, 2013, 96 mins

Revelation Perth International Film Festival 
3 – 13 July

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, Metro Magazine and Screen Education. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay