Kadri Kõusaar's "The Arbiter" starts off with two prologue episodes shot in Estonian locations that are so Gothic they could be farce.
The lead character, a pleasant but banal English chap named John, arrives for a job interview at a forbidding manor (Alatskivi, actually) where a wealthy one-legged Swedish woman reveals the job to him: father her child through a surrogate.
The story then skips ahead several years to where John is told by his partner, a woman his own age, that she has decided not to have his baby. Instead of going their separate ways, the characters meet on a snowy beach and hold an awkward seaside funeral for the aborted fetus. The audience is even treated to a glimpse of the minuscule shrivelled body before it's launched into a slushy sea in a tiny casket.
Where is all this going? Finally the main narrative starts, with the locations switching to the English countryside. The arbiter turns out to be John, and the film, a meditation on one possible future of European fascism. Like a secular hand of God, John is on a eugenics-inspired crusade to mete out "justice," which unfolds in the form of a road trip with the child sired with the Swedish baroness, a girl of about 14.
The audience is in the same situation as the impressionable girl, only slowly catching on to the fact that, despite the character's nonchalance and levity, it is not a joke. Kõusaar doesn't show us or the girl everything at first, keeping us scratching our heads for a while. By the time an entire busload of mental patients is asphyxiated, it is clear to all that real crimes have taken place.
So is no one chasing this serial killer? He appears to be operating with an awful lot of impunity, and the film sets its own rules to enable its various shocking set pieces. There's a strange interlude, a dream sequence, where we see John as one of four judges on a European death panel - more Breivikian self-delusion. But considering what John gets away with, it's almost as if the dream is real and he is a high judge, not a nobody.
Edgy stuff, and the idea of a deluded Robin Hood-Hitler hybrid is intriguing after what happened in Norway. But Kõusaar seems more interested in crossing lines than saying where the boundaries should lie. Even for a free-floating film of ideas, it's a messy and discordant one. At least the film's own reality could have been made to feel more real. "The Arbiter" would probably have benefited from cuts and a more subtle screenplay.
-Kristopher Rikken and Marina Giro