Cruel and unusual, it too often feels like punishment.
Cruel and unusual, Finnish export Euthanizer has a mercifully short runtime. But as the Nordic grim reaper at its center delivers a quick death for suffering animals and metes out justice to humans that make animals suffer, it too often feels like punishment for the viewer.
Veijo (Matti Onnismaa, who had a small part in Aki Kaurismäki’s The Other Side of Hope) is a stern, middle-aged mechanic who has a side gig euthanizing animals for less than what veterinarians charge. When customers approach him, explaining they want to put a pet out of its misery, he sizes them up first, demanding to know what kind of a life they provided for the animal. More often than not, he determines, the creatures suffered their entire lives. Veijo doesn’t care much for humans, and he is bitter about growing up under a drunken father who now lies in a hospital listening to sad music while he awaits death and more morphine.
Naturally, the treatment of humans and the treatment of animals meet, though not in the way you expect; the film doesn’t exactly offer Veijo as an antisocial antihero so much as make him a quirky pawn in a quirky tale of the evil men do. So it logically follows that the characters in the film who are most cruel to animals happen to be white supremacists. One brutish figure in particular takes a dog to Veijo to be put down, but when the euthanizer determines that it’s a perfectly healthy animal, he takes care of him rather than kills him, which doesn’t sit well with his hot-tempered client. Meanwhile, Veijo strikes up a strange romance with a young nurse who likes her lover to pretend to choke her when they copulate.
If this all sounds unpleasant, well, it is—a low-budget, hand-held camera attempt at black comedy without the comedy. Its very premise makes for a tonal minefield that the movie navigates mainly by mining other elements for outrage. Animals don’t suffer on screen, but as we see the executioner’s preferred method for smaller animals—he places them in the back seat of his car, which he uses as a makeshift gas chamber—it’s hard to reconcile such dark imagery with the protagonist’s supposed concern for animal welfare. (He shoots larger animals—off screen, of course.) For its final act, the movie becomes a brutal revenge drama, which is about the only time the movie offers any kind of satisfaction, but even then, it’s an empty catharsis.
It seems pertinent to note that director Teemu Nikki’s credits include a short called “Tits,” about a character saving up to buy bigger ones. Euthanizer is full of people unhappy with their lot. While its cast nails the essence of unsympathetic characters that just means it’s a fairly accurate portrayal of suffering, but without the depth to give that pain any philosophical or dramatic significance.