The Norwegian neo-noir It’s Only Make Believe takes its cues not only from the current miserablist state of the country’s cinema at the moment (dark, brutally realistic stories with dark morals) and the current American subgenre of crime flicks that take place in bucolic, rural locations. Nothing about Arild Østin Ommundsen’s work here necessarily reinvents the genre or even breaths a lot of new life into it, but it’s very well acted, gorgeously shot, and mostly features even plotting.
Jenny (Silje Salomonsen, Ommundsen’s wife) has just been released from a near decade long prison sentence for murdering a faceless thug during a drug deal gone sour. Pregnant at the time of her arrest, Jenny has decided to go perfectly straight upon release so she can reclaim custody of her now nine year old daughter (Iben Østin Hjelle). Short on cash and unable to find steady, legal work, she turns to the dealer she refused to implicate as an accessory to her previous criminal act (Vegar Hoel) to seek restitution. It sets forth a chain of events that will force her into her old life as the brother of the man she killed (Ole Romsdal) demands restitution.
Ommundsen effectively sets up his tale as a struggle for personal betterment. It’s a classical sort of morality tale and tragedy with Salomonsen becoming his Joan of Arc. She’s a good person who wants happiness, but she’ll be punished greatly for even trying. The way that story unfolds isn’t particularly original, hitting mostly every expected gut punching beat along the way, but Ommunden has the sense to frame it quite beautifully through his choice of locations and fully fleshed out characters.
It’s anchored expertly by Solomonsen, for whom the film seems designed to be a star vehicle and rightfully so. She’s positively radiant (perhaps a bit too radiant for an ex-con) and commanding as a mother desperately trying to keep her head above water. Her inability to fully reconcile with her past has irrevocably damaged her future, and while she certainly doesn’t deserve the treatment she gets from former acquaintances here, Solomonsen plays Jenny as sympathetically cynical. She shows that Jenny has seen the worst the world has to offer, so she refuses to give in fully to positivity. An early scene where Jenny groans her way through a meeting with other female parolees perfectly sets up her arc to come. She doesn’t necessarily want to be back, but she has to come back.
The supporting cast also acclimates themselves quite nicely, especially Hoel as a chickenshit petty pusher who shouldn’t be trust as far as he can trip over his own feet, and Romsdal as the quietly intense shot caller who gets more glee out of watching Jenny squirm than he does out of actually running a successful criminal enterprise. A special mention is also in order for Egil Birkeland as a disheveled henchman who goes by the ludicrous name of Eddie Vedder.
It’s a taut enough cat and mouse thriller for the first hour or so before slowly going off the rails in the final third. The plotting becomes increasingly predictable and somewhat convenient, which makes the film’s conclusion resonate a bit less than it might have with some more novel twists and a great deal more focus. Side plots involving Jenny’s now paralyzed and mute fiancée (Fredrik Hana), a bank employee and former classmate of Jenny’s with a crush (Tomas Alf Larsen), and her daughter’s foster mother (Lene Heimlund Larsen) have the most minimal of payoffs and add very little other than running time.
But the conclusion itself is interesting enough to overcome the shortcomings of the climax, giving the audience an ending that could be seen as either depressing or optimistic depending on how one could view it. This film has been done before (many times in Norway alone), but it’s a solid B-effort overall.