Life can be funny sometimes, so for this post I’m going to need you all to come on a bit of a trip with me. You don’t have to go the whole way, though, as I’ll be pointing out the off-ramps. Basically, my weekend started with me just wanting to watch another Northern European horror show (because as one of my colleagues put it, my “whole lane is terrifying” and it is) and has devolved into me questioning the entire nature of humankind.
But let me back up a bit.
The new Netflix series The Chestnut Man is a six-episode murder mystery set outside of Copenhagen written by Søren Sveistrup, who did The Killing and The Snowman. (Listen, no one bats a thousand, ok?) Here’s the trailer.
Whoever came up with a kid’s choir singing a weird song to be creepy wasn’t paid enough.
The mystery is fairly simple in its construction, but “simple” shouldn’t be confused for “bad.” If anything, throwing in too many red herrings and last-minute plot twists can ruin an otherwise fine mystery (Mare of Easttown, I’m contrarily looking in your general direction). Detective Naia Thulin (Danica Curcic, who I don’t want to reduce to a Danish Jessica Chastain, but who is kind of a Danish Jessica Chastain) is looking to transfer out of homicide and into cyber-crime in order to spend more time with her daughter. Cool. Fine. Relatable, even.
Before she can transfer, though, Naia is put on a case involving a woman found beaten to death outside of her home with one hand cut off. Because Naia is seemingly difficult to work with (difficult being every professional woman’s favorite adjective), she’s partnered with Mark Hess (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, whose real name is much, much cooler than his character’s name), a big shot detective from The Hague who has essentially been put in a timeout in the small, suburban police department. Luckily for Naia, she still has an ally in dedicated lab tech Simon (David Dencik. I don’t have anything specific to say about Simon, but here’s a cool picture of him lab teching).
The jump from “crime procedural” to “murder mystery” arrives when Simon discovers that a small chestnut man left near the victim has the fingerprints of Kristine Hartung, the daughter of Rosa Hartung (Iben Dorner), who was abducted and murdered a year earlier.
Rosa, the Minister of Social Affairs, is, in fact, just now returning to work after taking the full year to deal with the death. Meaning that having the police barge in to ask questions about a murder victim’s fingerprint on a seemingly unrelated murder scene wouldn’t be great for the victim’s family and probably not a fantastic look for the police department, either. “Hey, you know how we quickly and effectively solved that case that was the worst thing that’s ever happened to you? I know you’re just starting to close those wounds, so let’s poke around in there to see if we screwed up.”
Outside of that, I don’t want to give away too much more (yet) because this really was one of the better murder mysteries I’ve seen in the past year or so. I wasn’t shaken to my core (Katla, you still own that alone), but The Chestnut Man managed the often unmanageable feat of being both surprising and inevitable and those are the signs of an inherently good mystery. The show is good and you should watch it. And if that’s all you want to know, I’d suggest you use this as one of those previously designated off-ramps because things are about to get spoilery.
Remember back when I said the construction of the mystery was “simple”? I should have clarified that that meant “not convoluted” because I am going to need at least a couple of paragraphs to explain how it was resolved. The essential answer to “whodunit?” is “it was Simon,” leading to a probable follow-up of “excuse me?” And you’d be correct. The real tragedy of the show started thirty years before when current Minister of Social Affairs Rosa Hartung was a girl who’d been adopted by a kind couple.
Here she is in the middle of tending to social affairs, I assume. The U.S. doesn’t really have officials that take care of people. Not in the same way, at least.
In a flashback scene, we’re shown Rosa happily making chestnut men with the foster twins, Toke and Astrid, who’ve been staying with her family before Rosa’s mother pulls her aside to ask how she’d feel about Toke and Astrid staying with them permanently. Whatever it is that Rosa confesses to her mom in response, it’s done quietly, secretively, and results in the twins being sent to a second foster home. A farm where the two are routinely imprisoned, beaten, sexually abused, and tortured until the foster father is overcome by guilt and kills his entire family and himself, sparing only the twins. Which definitely isn’t suspicious at all obviously.
The twins eventually age out of the foster care system, and Toke, deciding that perhaps walking around with the name of a famously abused child might not be the best career move, changes his name to Simon, becomes a lab technician in the town where his old foster sister Rosa lives, and uses the information available to him through the police department to kidnap her daughter, hunt and kill women he deems as being bad mothers, and keep tabs on the ongoing investigation. Simon is a cold-blooded, misogynistic murderer, but dude does have stellar planning skills.
The thing about his vengeance that got me most (outside of the fact that he says “mothers have a deeper obligation to their children than fathers” which is just some absolute sexist garbage that we need to do away with immediately) is how deeply understandable some elements of the story were as compared to the unimaginable horror of others. After it was revealed that Simon had changed his name from Toke, my response was, “Well why didn’t someone keep track of him?” A response that I somehow horrified myself with. In retrospect, you don’t want to lose track of a murderer, but in reality, an eighteen-year-old man who’d been violently abused by individuals and let down by an entire social system wanted to leave his past behind. Of course, you’re going to encourage him to change his name if he needs to.
It’s the same way that the police actions taken after Kristine originally disappeared are in retrospect horrific and unnervingly understandable. The police found a previously convicted sex criminal near the scene of the crime and began investigating him. Which is prudent. But their work got sloppy, and they gave away too many details during the questioning. The person they were investigating falsely confessed to a crime because he had a sketchy past, a mental health issue, and apparently terrible legal representation. The police believed he’d done something horrific so they were able to use small procedural oversights to convict an innocent man.
Oh, and that confession that Rosa made to her mom about why she didn’t want Toke to stay? The implication being that he’d acted inappropriately with her? She acknowledges she made it up (or it’s very heavily implied that she made it up). As a child, she made a terrible mistake that led to others inflicting unspeakable horrors onto children. She did a bad thing, and it reverberated throughout her entire life. I’m not sure if it’s the cold or the darkness or the gargantuan sweaters cutting off oxygen to the brain, but Scandinavians manifest a slow, thrumming “you fucked up one thing and now your daughter’s gone” type of scary better than anyone else.
The biggest compliment I can give the show is that it manages to deepen all of the characters’ backstories without throwing into question who is the perpetrator and who is the victim. Rosa didn’t deserve to be targeted regardless of her actions as a child any more than Simon got to be absolved of what he did because of what he’d had done to him. The mystery is that someone who felt he had a right to dole out justice did so and was caught. The horror is that it happened because one person in one place didn’t do what they should have. It wasn’t evil, it was less impressive than that. It was banality bumping up against terror.