The Danish Department Q trilogy consists of standalone films—The Keeper of Lost Causes, The Absent One and A Conspiracy of Faith—that nevertheless work best when viewed in proper sequence and as a single entity. Taken as a whole, the trilogy is essentially a standard television crime procedural drama dialed up to 11 and photographed as stylish Scandinavian noir. All of the films are based upon the novels of Jussi Adler-Olsen. They are entertaining and at times thrilling, but they’re rarely surprising or original. The trilogy more closely resembles European television police-dramas to streaming services—“The Fall,” “Happy Valley” and “Jack Taylor”—than the arthouse-minded works of Danish filmmakers like Lars von Trier.

The first film in the set, The Keeper of Lost Causes, is at times weighed down by the expositional requirements of presenting Department Q’s origin story. The department is comprised of two pariah Danish policemen, the hot-headed workaholic Carl Mørck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and the ostracized Arab Assad (Fares Fares). They are relegated to the basement of headquarters, where they are assigned the onerous task of sorting through cold case files and closing them out administratively. Mørck, always the malcontent, instead finds a case he believes was wrongly considered a suicide and begins investigating it as a murder.

This establishes the standard plot contrivance of the Department Q films as a whole, and it is one that is wholly familiar to screen-literate viewers. Namely, the plots are driven by Mørck’s wanton disregard for authority, which allows his investigative curiosity to dive into the darkest recesses of human behavior as he works to solve perplexing cases. Mørck, like his screen history peers, is plagued by severe personal and professional issues, but he shrugs those off in the service of satisfying his urge to solve mysterious events.

Thankfully, Mørck does not possess any singular policing skill or have access to some state-of-the-art forensic facility. This keeps the films from venturing into “CSI”-like biological minutiae or the faux-“aha” brilliance of “Sherlock.” In fact, Mørck is actually a very bad cop. He repeatedly walks right into the traps of criminal masterminds, forgets to sweep premises before fixating on something he found in them and gets physically overpowered by those he is pursuing. This is refreshing, if not original; after all, John McClane was also a chronically embattled shitty cop who got by on toughness and gumption.

While The Keeper of Lost Causes has to dedicate significant runtime to setting up the Department Q premise, The Absent One and A Conspiracy of Faith have full license to delve straightaway into the murkiest quagmires of serially-violent criminals. The plots of all three films are outlandish, brutal and just plausible enough to keep the viewer engaged. The criminals being pursued in the trilogy are not run-of-the-mill murderers but rather the most sadistic members of human society. The films enthusiastically—perhaps too enthusiastically, in fact—trace tales of torture and depravity.

Herein lies one of the problems with the trilogy. Denmark is not some criminal hellscape plagued by profligate violence. In A Conspiracy of Faith, the characters themselves make a similar observation but the film is not a meta-deconstruction of the police-procedural drama—it guilelessly follows genre conventions after this remark. There are several other plot issues if the viewer adopts an analytic eye rather than just strapping in for the cinematic ride: the Danish police are portrayed as impossibly incompetent, the storylines are populated with stock characters and generic scenarios and not even Mørck or Assad are treated as genuine full-lived persons. These films are all about the intentionally hyperbolic cases.

The mise-en-scène and the cinematography of the trilogy add well to the atmosphere and contribute to the plots’ single-minded mission to solve the cases. The interiors are grimy, greasy and genuinely look like the sorts of places where crimes are committed. The exteriors are often shot with ambitiously-sweeping pans that capture the steely grays and foreboding greens of Europe’s great northern coastal lands. But neither the set designs nor the photography approach the cinematic grandiosity of truly great filmmaking; in fact, they most closely resemble everyday prestige television.

Taken as either a three-film set or as three individual works, the Department Q films are diverting, escapist cinematic enjoyment at their finest. Unlike most summer blockbusters produced in the US, they are competently-composed, with well-edited action scenes and fallible protagonists. They also importantly feature an openly-Muslim primary character. Viewers should avoid expectations that these films will be anything more than escapist entertainment, or stare too hard at the scripts.

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