The savage beauty of Finland’s northernmost reaches provides a stunning backdrop for Estonian director Veiko Õunpuu’s The Last Ones. Never coming close to matching the majesty of its surroundings, this misguided, tonally muddled frontier drama goes nowhere. Trouble above and below ground in a remote Lapland mining community threatens lives and livelihoods from the off.
Having reached the limit of what can safely be blasted from a cavernous mine, a call from on high compels an already mutinous workforce to keep going “a little further.” Without the say-so to sell the land of his father, needed for further excavation, Rupi (Pääru Oja) must bear the brunt of abuse from colleagues and plough on. The evident generational conflict between a traditional reindeer-herding lifestyle and respect for the land, at odds with destructive, capitalist greed, could have been fertile ground for The Last Ones to explore.
But like those forced to work here due to an apparent lack of any other opportunity, we are obliged to follow the shallow, dead-end tale of a standoff between three men, that has beautiful, listless femme fatale Riitta (Laura Birn) caught in the crossfire. Broken into three chapters, The Last Ones begins with ‘Rupi & Riitta’. “Your stash is blown,” she says, as he recovers a bag of cash and drugs from the wheel-arch of a rusty, scrapyard bus. The granular freeze-frames over the opening credit sequence, as Rupi freewheels around the muddy site on his dirt bike, suggest that we could be in for a moody, against-the-odds 1970s-style tale of young lovers on the run.
But no such luck. They – and we – are all stuck here. And it turns out Rupi procures the pills on the instructions of mine boss, Kari (Tommi Korpela). Supplementing the income of a clearly failing venture, and keeping his workforce out of their minds on booze and drugs, they spend each night at the town’s one pub. Cheap champagne, worse karaoke and deep and meaningful chats about ‘destiny’ will only be anything but irritating if you watch this film in the same state as its characters. Veering from pulsing electronica to The Cars, Roxette to choral music, the score and soundtrack are all over the map.
Almost as if each member of the cast had been given one credit to the communal jukebox, it jumps around so much as to be irritating. Shoe-horning in Bob Dylan’s Lay, Lady Lay in closing really is the last straw. But then there’s also Riitta’s clingy, failed heavy-metal musician husband (Elmer Bäck) to contend with throughout. All lacking any sense of purpose or direction, so does the film.
Cinematographer Sten-Johan Lill’s valiant effort to capture the harshness of life here is sadly not reinforced by plot or structure. With Rupi tentatively looking on from the wings, Kari swoops in on Riitta in vulture-like fashion when his rivals are sent on a fool’s errand. The second act is given to ‘Kari the Fisherman’ who uses dynamite subtlety when angling for another man’s wife. However, this change of point of view is another ploy that adds nothing of substance.
‘The Tundra’, long forgotten and undervalued at this stage, completes the trio of chapters, but any hope for engagement with the film is over the hills and far away by the point it reaches its farcical conclusion. Just as there is no evidence to suggest that the mine in question ever yields anything, whichever way you dig into The Last Ones, you’ll come up empty-handed.
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Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63