Daniel Espinosa’s Easy Money is a gripping, intense, truly unnerving gangster movie with a heart or two, but heart in the mouth terror is always around the corner. The movie never let up with the fear and the violence—the hallmark of a fine thriller. And the English title was well chosen- it lays the irony on with a trowel. Not only is the cocaine/money central to this film not easily gotten, it vanishes- seized by the cops after the gang wars. And the living is not easy either—big score or no big score, just about everybody dies. Espinosa’s Easy Money has two interacting themes- the brief rise and long fall of a feral handsome cold young business school poser who believes falsely that he can join a group of gangsters and beat them at their own game with his business school smarts.
The poster hero/anti-hero Johan – J.W.- of Easy Money has a face that morphs from drop dead gorgeous – cheekbones one could slice a roast on- to a chilling long-snouted alien. Nicknamed, “Mathematica,” translated as “Mr. Brains” in English, John fails to understand that his schemes and plans which can be laid out on a glorious spread sheet are not thereby foolproof. His leitmotif, which is that with his intelligence and worldly wisdom- which he believes the gangsters lack- he has crafted a means of money laundering by actually buying a bank. So that there will be no reason for violence in the operation. Nobody has to get hurt. As one might expect he is proved disastrously wrong. J. W. is also oblivious to the gangsters’ contempt for him and for his belief that he has penetrated the inner circle and is thereby one of them—and safe. He begs vainly for attention and affection from the third hero, a Spanish gangster friend — whose response is to leap upon him, choke him and scream “you think you know me? You don’t’ know me! I’ll kill your whole family!”
Johan, who begins the film with the reputation of being the king of the business school he attends, is no luckier with another set of friends- wealthy cocaine loving laid back socialite types. They fete him and applaud his sense of humor. But when he begins to get close to a beautiful member of their set, the friend who has brought him to the party coldly warns him to stick with his own kind. It turns out to be good advice, if vain; Johan ends the film in jail, affectless, looking inward, and stone cold -denying any recognition or kindness to his lovely wealthy and hapless girlfriend who is visiting.
The second of three heroes is a powerful Serbian gangster hero with a sophisticated strategic intelligence, which commands attention. He becomes a tragic figure, unmanned by his devotion to his little daughter—whom he is forced to abandon in a hotel room as he is taken off to the emergency room. Doubtless to die. He is unable to survive the gang wars he has helped to set in motion. Or to keep safe the child he adores.
Without reprising the plot, let‘s just say that it is an in depth study of gangster life. The central issue is cocaine, which is essential to social life in Sweden—getting it, packaging it, checking for purity, cutting it, casually consuming it in quantities, distributing it, battling ferociously over payments. The characters are a mix of gangs organized mostly by nationality from Albanian to Spanish to Serbian to home grown Swedish, with alliances developing and collapsing before the eyes. At one point a Serbian declares that he and his colleagues are a band of brothers bound together forever, whom nothing can dissolve. Approximately ten minutes later he is declaring total war on a rival gang—and members of the former band of brothers.
We are also given pieces of the gangsters’ inner lives – their pasts are of unrelieved violence as is their present. The unpredictable sudden nature of violence is ever present. But a skewed kind of honor is also ever present and a determination – which is futile- to help the helpless characters like the little daughter and a sister who is about to give birth. It is deeply saddening. I found myself tearing up much against my will.
It’s not just a treatise on crime and criminals- it’s almost a sociological study of what happens to the children of violence and abuse. – I left the movie with the screams of the Spanish gangster in my ears- “you think you know me? You don’t’ know me! I’ll kill your whole family!”