Film scholars so often declare that gangster movies present “the dark side of the American dream” that the expression has become a cliché. The comparison holds up, however, for those crime dramas that use their pulpy content to explore the immigrant experience and social mobility. The dense, fast-paced crime drama “Easy Money” qualifies, even though it presents not the American dream but its Swedish counterpart.
Like “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “Easy Money” became a hit movie in Sweden based on the first novel in a best-selling trilogy. Former criminal defense lawyer Jens Lapidus launched his “Stockholm Noir” books with “Easy Money,” which in Swedish has the even cooler name “Snabba Cash.” Like the novel, Daniel Espinosa’s film version follows three main characters who occupy different rungs of Sweden’s underworld ladder.
“Easy Money” begins when boyish junior mobster Jorge (Matias Padin Varela) makes a daring, daylight escape from prison. He finds a warmer welcome in Stockholm’s Arab gangs than he receives from his pregnant sister. Meanwhile, world-weary, ruthless Mrado (intimidating Dragomir Mrsic) serves as an enforcer and middle manager for Serbian mobsters. When his estranged wife enters rehab, Mrado reluctantly brings his eight-year-old daughter to gangland summit meetings, as if it’s “Take Your Daughter to the Mafia” day.
The film primarily follows JW (Joel Kinnaman of AMC’s “The Killing”), a gifted student at the Stockholm School of Economics who uses his night job as a taxi driver to finance his luxe lifestyle with his rich friends. JW comes across as a talented Mr. Ripley with a stunted but still active conscience. He lives in a tiny dorm room with photos of male fashion models on his closet door, as if he’s trying to build a slick identity for himself. Although JW comes from humble beginnings, he tells his well-heeled girlfriend (Lisa Henni) that he’s the son of a diplomat.
To raise cash, JW perpetually tries to persuade taxi company owner Abdulkarim (Mahmut Suvakci) to put money into credible-sounding investment schemes. JW’s big break comes when Abdulkarim asks him to tail his criminal colleague Jorge, who in turn is being stalked by Mrado in an early stage of an intricate turf war. Director Espinosa crafts Hitchcockian suspense as JW finds himself over his head in a world of violence and subterfuge, and his storyline intersects with the other protagonists in surprising ways.
Like a blood-soaked class in international studies, “Easy Money” conveys the complexities of European immigrant communities involved in organized crime. For instance, Jorge is a Chilean whose connections in Germany will be crucial to the cocaine-dealing plans of his Arab partners in Stockholm. Bigotry keeps the system in flux, as exemplified by Mrado’s temperamental boss, who roars, “I won’t work with Albanians and Arabs!” The old-money power structure, on the other hand, seems barely aware of its impending obsolescence. One of JW’s rich buddies reclines by a pool in tennis whites even as his father’s bank becomes a casualty of the global economic slump. JW becomes the Arab mobsters’ money man by arranging for them to purchase the bank as a money-laundering front.
With haunted-looking handsomeness, Kinnaman conveys the stresses on JW as he makes questionable moral choices in the name of social elevation. At one point, he risks overstepping his place in the company of drug dealers who would have no qualms about killing him. Not long afterward, he must charm his girlfriend’s rich parents over dinner without revealing the huge bloodstain on his cuff.
“Easy Money” emulates the sprawling plotting and shocking violence of a Martin Scorsese mob movie, but where a film like “Goodfellas” features lurid colors and fluid camera work, Espinosa uses a more jittery style, with pale, naturalistic lighting. “Easy Money” feels as if it shares the same cinematic universe as the French prison drama “A Prophet,” a recent best foreign language Oscar nominee with a similar cynical vision of the European underworld.
Like most gang dramas, the film concludes that in organized crime, greed and self-interest invariably trump other motivations. In that respect, it runs the same risks as any other kind of capitalism.
“Easy Money.” With Joel Kinnaman, Dragomir Mrsic. Directed by Daniel Espinosa. Rated R. 119 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.