During The Element of Crime, it never seems like the mystery will be particularly compelling. The film and the detective’s investigation are compelling, but the mystery itself seems rather pat. A serial killer has been targeting young girls selling lotto tickets, earning the moniker the “Lotto Murderer,” and the police are stumped. So they bring in Michael Elphick to take over. Elphick has been living in Cairo for over a dozen years, exiled from Europe. The film starts back in Cairo with a therapist, Ahmed El Shenawi, hypnotizing Elphick to get him to remember what happened.
Only El Shenawi isn’t hypnotizing Elphick exactly; he’s hypnotizing the audience. After a handful of murky shots of Cairo, director von Trier starts the film proper with a second-person point-of-view. It’s mesmerizing. Element of Crime will mesmerize often, but the second-person stuff is von Trier’s most significant swing, if only because everything else has some foundation when he does it.
It takes a few more minutes to meet Elphick—he starts narrating before he appears on screen. Elphick’s narration and diegetic dialogue are sometimes indistinguishable, creating incredible, sometimes startling effects—and we get to see some of future Europe. It’s flooded, and everyone just lives sometimes in three feet of standing water. It’s all nonpotable, so everyone’s a bit of a drunk. von Trier doesn’t have many establishing shots in the film. Sometimes he’ll focus on one aspect of the scenery, but there aren’t any skylines. The film takes place entirely at night and is all in a yellow or greenish tint. Occasionally, there are other color breakthroughs, usually blue, but it’s primarily high contrast yellow or green action surrounded by infinite darkness. In that darkness is the rest of civilization, struggling to continue, left up to the audience’s imagination. It’s incredibly ambitious and a formidable accomplishment.
Elphick’s first stop is his old mentor, Esmond Knight, who taught Elphick everything there is to know about criminal investigations. He taught many detectives, though, even wrote a book called The Element of Crime. It’s a reasonably thick book—we see a couple copies in the film—but the central concept is physically occupying the space of the villain to experience what they experienced and potentially find clues through one’s impersonated reactions. But before Elphick starts retracing the killer’s footsteps, he’s got to get yelled at by the asshole police chief. Jerold Wells plays the chief, who knew Elphick in the old days and was his subordinate. But now Wells is the boss, and there’s no time for that hippy-dippy Element of Crime stuff.
The first act is Elphick getting situated back in Europe and getting some sense of the case from Knight, who had some kind of breakdown as a result of the investigation; Elphick’s only there a few hours before the next victim turns up, which gives the film a sense of immediate danger. Especially since someone is lurking around Knight’s house and then following Elphick.
The mystery figure will continue into the second act as Elphick starts retracing the killer’s steps and soon takes on a sidekick in prostitute Me Me Lai. She’s part of his first stop, then she tags along for a change of scenery and ends up being an invaluable asset in the investigation.
Everything will be revealed in the third act, but only answers to the questions Elphick asks. The mystery he’s investigating is one thread, the mystery the film’s creating through the investigation is another. The film probably has the answers—at least some of them—if you wanted to go through it and pick it apart, but it wouldn’t change the effect because the conclusion is the same. Evil is commonplace, whether it’s the Lotto Murderer or Wells. Especially in this crumbling, sunken world, fecund with violence and death. It’s a helpless, hopeless world. Elphick’s very interesting in how he works against hopelessness. He’s undeniably mired in it, but he really wants to be above it.
It’s a very, very full hour and forty minutes, with exceptional use of narration combined with an excellent performance from Elphick. Knight, Wells, and Lai are all fantastic too. There are a dozen or so other characters, but most are just stops along the way in Elphick’s investigation. Despite the darkness and narration, Element of Crime isn’t a noir or even a riff on one. Instead, the thorough investigation makes it feel a lot more classical, down to the undiscovered urban environment surrounding the narrative.
von Trier’s direction is superlative. He and his crew—cinematographer Tom Elling, editor Tómas Gislason, production designer Peter Høimark, composer Bo Holten—do remarkable work. The film’s even more impressive taking the multiple languages at play in its creation—von Trier and co-writer Niels Vørsel lucked out with translators William Quarshie and Stephen Wakelam. The script’s superb.
Crime’s a singular motion picture, both as a mystery-thriller and as a piece of work.