Originally published on Ink 19 on March 28, 2023
Eight Deadly Shots
directed by Mikko Niskanen
There is a societal reset button that all of us hope to hit when we take a plunge into an idyllic natural setting. Most of us see in nature the belief in a force that should allow us to live our lives in a basic and sensible way free of unforeseen impediments commonly found in densely populated areas, but when we ascribe to affix a human order to the pastoral by compromising it in favor of society and with it, government, our ability to manage our existence becomes a constantly evolving and more complicated mission.
Beginning each episode of Mikko Niskanen’s recently restored 1972 mini-series, Eight Deadly Shots (Kahdeksan surmanluotia), which opens its run at the Film Forum in NYC on Friday, March 31, is an onscreen pull quote that is uttered by Vaimo (Tarja-Tuulikki Tarsala), the wife of our central character Pasi (Mikko Niskanen): “Booze Was the Root of All Evil in Our Family,” but through Niskanen’s interpretation of tragic real life events, we will come to view Pasi’s relationship with alcohol as a series of complicated acts of survival, bold defiance, frustration, and addiction that he exhibits while trying to make a life for his family in their failing farming community.
Niskanen based his exceptionally powerful and engrossing piece on the life of Tauno Pasanen, a struggling farmer and father of four who, on March 7, 1969, shot and killed four police officers responding to a domestic disturbance at Pasanen’s home in the Finnish rural town of Sääksmäki. In Eight Deadly Shots, Niskanen depicts aspects of Pasanen’s life through the aforementioned Pasi, and as the film begins, we bear witness to images of a sullen and incarcerated Pasi interspliced with footage of the burial of the four slain officers.
The four episodes that follow these opening moments provide a complicated look at Pasi’s life just before the killings, but as Niskanen also promises us at the beginning of each episode: “This film does not claim to reproduce a real event, even though the story is based on one in some important respects. Everyone may have his own truth, but this is the truth I saw and experienced, having been born into these surroundings, having lived this particular life, and having studied these matters.” With this disclaimer in mind, we are indeed presented with a work that achieves volumes beyond the simple retelling of a criminal act into a statement that ties a personal struggle to an overall societal flaw.
The small local government’s systematic inability to grasp Pasi and his family’s plight and its indifference to the broad, desperate circumstances of the time and place is repeatedly demonstrated through Niskanen’s point of view and earnest portrayal of Pasi himself. Like the majority of families in their community, Pasi and his family try to make a living by meager farming in an unfavorable environment that does not generate enough yield to survive in a country that may still be reeling from the aftershock economic effects of reparations owed for its battles against the Soviet Union during World War II. In response to their plight, Pasi and his best friend and neighbor Reiska (Paavo Pentikäinen) turn to manipulating the natural elements around them by producing alcohol as a lucrative and highly illegal way to make ends meet as Pasi’s farm continues to struggle, unable to produce anything natural that could come close to covering his family’s expenses, let alone the high taxes from which they receive little benefit. However, Pasi’s occupation as a bootlegger and his inability to maintain sobriety greatly annoy Vaimo. She worries not only about the scorn her family will suffer because of her husband’s illicit business venture, but also about Pasi’s potentially dangerous outbursts when he returns home in various obtuse states of intoxication.
Eventually, one of Pasi’s drunken outbursts causes his family to flee their home and lands him in a rough night in jail. Afterwards, the local police keep a closer eye on him, looking to book him again for any sign of public drunkenness, or better yet, find hard evidence of his bootlegging. In addition, his family’s respect for him diminishes severely, as seen particularly in a moment when his eldest son even adds a false accusation of “whoring” to his father’s list of bad habits despite the fact that he has never spent a second with another woman. Thus, with his reputation tarnished at home and without any legitimate sources of income, Pasi works menial labor jobs, including ditch-digging for the installation of sewage lines and cutting down trees for firewood and hauling them through the snow on a sled pulled by his beloved horse Liisa. Despite his commitment to complete the work he’s able to find, it only lasts for short periods of time and pays poorly. So, as the expenses mount, Pasi is once more forced to turn to bootlegging for money, which further infuriates his wife and invites ire from the town’s leaders as well as legal harassment. Finally, after numerous failed attempts to subsist, the family is hit with an unaffordable tax bill. Vaimo errantly advises Pasi to speak with the town’s tax council in an effort to lower the total, but because of his reputation, Pasi is informed that no change will be made to the total, furthering his feelings of alienation, hopelessness, and complete disenfranchisement.
Given that he presents the audience with the outcome of the story at the beginning, Niskanen sensibly removes the suspense in the sequence of events in Pasi’s life and, in turn, builds a thorough and precise sociological case study, but that does not mean that the final movie is devoid of empathy or moving scenes in any way. In fact, Niskanen’s multi-layered portrayal of Pasi forms a profound depiction of a flawed man with a tremendous capacity for hard work and a great desire to support his family who is also constrained by his own vices and the contemporary forces and mores around him, leading to a wide range of behaviors that, at times, are simultaneously fatherly, diligent, beleaguered, and self-destructive. We are then left with a clear impression of a man who attempted to fit in with his surroundings and a society around him that actively participated in bringing out the darkest aspects of himself as the inevitable conclusion plays out in front of us.
Restored by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, Yleisradio Oy, Fiction Finland ry, and Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna at L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory, Eight Deadly Shots remains as an eerily prescient document of how our constant inability to work together to create a mutually satisfactory governmental system for everybody to thrive in the environment around us can grind down an individual and lead to a cataclysmic event.
Eight Deadly Shots opens on Friday, March 31, 2023, at the Film Forum in NYC.
Featured image courtesy of Janus Films.
Generoso and Lily Fierro