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Fantastic Fest: ‘Detective Downs’ Is Norwegian Noir With Heart

By  · Published on September 21st, 2013

Robert Bogerud (Svein André Hofsø) is a rather unique detective. Of course he has the typical hat and trench coat favored by private eyes past, he places ads in local papers as detectives are wont to do, and like many of his brethren he specializes in missing persons cases. He’s also never had a case, missing person or otherwise. What makes him unique though is the very same reason he’s never actually been hired.

Robert has Down Syndrome and lives in a group home.

When a distraught woman appears in his “office” requesting his help even he’s dumbfounded. “But,” he says matter of factly, thinking perhaps she’s somehow missed the obvious, “I’ve got Down Syndrome.” Undeterred, Rita Starr hires him to find her missing husband, a former Olympic champion named Olav. The two head off to Starr’s estate with the cheers of Robert’s fellow residents bringing a smile and a lift to his his step, but his investigation begins hitting snags almost immediately. All is not as it seems between Olav’s wife, elderly mother, and two grown children, and it’s going to take everything Robert’s got to solve and survive the case.

Detective Downs could have easily taken a turn for the insensitive or the crass, but co-writer/director Bård Breien weaves a gentle, fun, and warm mystery thanks in large part to his lead actor.

“There were so many sad people around.”

Robert’s father is a sad sack detective who’s been down in spirits since his wife, Robert’s mother, died years prior. While the rest of the cops around the office entertain the young private eye when he comes to visit his dad, the father/son relationship is at a colder, more frustrated level. When the investigation leads Robert to believe that Olav was unloved by his own family a connection is born that drives the inexperienced detective into some unusual directions.

His method is to step into the missing person’s life to see, and more importantly, to feel what they were feeling before they disappeared. For Olav that means wearing his clothes, attempting father/daughter talks with the man’s grown daughter, and even sleeping in Rita’s bed. Only the clothes bit sticks. Luckily it’s only Olav’s mother he needs to convince, and as he explains his emotional method to her, he does so with a hug and the promise to find her son. It’s a touching scene, one of several, and it accentuates the film’s light tone.

It’s an incredibly light romp with the “villains” never really exuding anything resembling a truly dangerous side, and while that itself isn’t really a negative it keeps the movie from carrying much weight. The counter to that though is Hofsø’s performance. He brings a heart to the role that sells not only the character but the character’s motivations and methods. He’s canny too and quite clear on his own reach, and he’s able to move seamlessly between shy boy and confident man at the slap of a cheek. It’s easy enough at times to forget that Hofsø has Down Syndrome, but the awareness returns just as quickly. Neither he nor his character ask or need anyone to feel sorry or pity, and instead he delivers honesty and joy. His spontaneous dance scene in the park is as happy and life-filled a segment as you’ll see all year.

Detective Downs won’t reignite the noir genre, but like Rian Johnson’s Brick it succeeds in taking the usual ingredients and tilting them on their side so they’re visible in an entirely new light. Hofsø is a charismatic delight, fully aware of his own charm, and I for one would love to see a follow up adventure.

The Upside: Svein André Hofsø is a delight and delivers an emotionally compelling performance; the film leads to smiles and possibly some misty eyes; jazzy, lonely trumpet score

The Downside: Mystery and fallout are kept fairly simple; rarely any real sense of danger

On the Side: Bård Breien’s previous feature, his first, is a black comedy about a group of disabled people dealing with life, therapy, and the highs and lows of their predicaments.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.