In the Netflix limited series Clark, director Jonas Åkerlund approaches the life and career of notorious Swedish bank robber Clark Olafsson as a story of “truth and lies,” and of course it is. Attempting a faithful portrait of such an infamous liar and crook, based in part on Olafsson’s autobiography, means loading your brush with a lot of beautiful bullshit from the start. It is beautiful though. Beautiful and exciting and sexy and poignant and sometimes disturbing. It’s a life that should be fiction, and here in Åkerlund’s exuberant account, its telling has as much charisma, and probably a good deal more substance, than the man it’s based on.
Though he’s mostly known for music videos–and the hectic, drumming pulse of Clark does measure character moments in vivid 3 to 5-minute bursts–this isn’t Åkerlund’s first biography. “A story of truth and lies” is also how he described his 2018 feature Lords of Chaos, itself a chilling plunge into the violent history of the 1980s Norwegian Black Metal band Mayhem, told from the POV of its founder Euronymous. With graphic, lingering depictions of suicide and murder, Lords of Chaos checks in as a horror film, but drama-comedy Clark still shares tons of DNA with Åkerlund’s previous foray into (mostly) living history. Like Lords of Chaos was narrated by Euronymous, Clark is narrated by its subject, the charming playboy criminal who gave the world Stockholm Syndrome, literally and possibly figuratively, and loved every minute of it. Like Lords of Chaos, gallows humor and Åkerlund’s dynamic, super-saturated, sometimes straight-up whimsical visual sense obfuscate a bleak story as something more fun, less serious, until you’re pretty far down the rabbit hole. And like Lords of Chaos, Clark is completely unflinching. There’s little attempt to moralize in either piece, only to show bad people at their best…which is also at their riveting worst.
Bill Skarsgård stars as everyone’s favorite celebrity gangster in a tour de force performance. After this, he ain’t nobody’s son or nobody’s brother and he absolutely isn’t Pennywise.* Projecting Clark’s irrepressible persona alongside a true sociopath’s ad hoc inner life is a heavy lift, but he pulls it off with light fingers, as the story follows Clark from a grainy black-and-white childhood of privation and abuse to his first shits-and-giggles juvenile crimes and on into his sensational career as a big-time international menace. So much depends on giving the audience Stockholm Syndrome enough to hang with this really awful, dangerous guy, and happily, that’s where Skarsgård shines brightest, channeling the con man’s strange purity, his guileless love of life and his addiction to women.
About the women. He’s generally terrible to the people he cons, of course, but Clark’s womanizing might test a contemporary audience’s patience more than anything else. Compulsive seduction is kind of a thing for Clark, and there’s a lot of sex in this, like…a lot. Not that it ever lasts long, in any sense, and that’s brave for an actor in a different way, one supposes. Internalized sexism and misogyny may find one blaming the women he seduces for their own heartbreak, like his long-suffering girlfriend Maria (Hanna Björn), who encourages Clark to use his persuasive gifts as an activist rather than a thief, or the mother-daughter pair he seduces, only to betray with each other. And the way that Åkerlund keeps the story unspooling through Clark’s eyes, the audience is never invited to reflect on or even notice the wreckage Clark leaves in his wake until fairly late in the series. Often, especially early on, it seems like Åkerlund might be glamorizing the toxicity. Clark spends a lot of time in jail, but consequences that actually hurt Clark back are elusive.
Which brings us to Tommy. The closest thing Clark gets to a foil is one of Åkerlund’s lies, the fictional insert of real-life Swedish supercop Tommy Lindström (Vilhelm Blomgren, Midsommar’s Pelle playing against type as your grumpy 1970s dad). Lindström had no involvement in any of these cases, much less a personal grudge against Clark, but the story needs someone not to fall for Clark’s crap, and apparently that person did not actually exist. So Åkerlund drafts Tommy, “Tommy Pony” to Clark, a little bit Javert and a little bit Clouseau, cursing and facepalming as Clark cartwheels through his carefree gangster life. I want a straight action-comedy that’s nothing but them. Sadly, they never reach the heights of a real Diabolik-Jenko rivalry, partly because the series does return to the truth, more or less, of Clark’s life. One thing the born frenemies will share though turns out to be the most famous incident in Clark’s notorious life: 1973’s Norrmalmstorg robbery.
The Norrmalmstorg robbery is where we get the phrase “Stockholm Syndrome,” and Clark Olafsson is the reason why. He wasn’t originally responsible for the crime; that was his cellmate Jan-Erik Olsson (Christoffer Nordenrot, bringing some serious unhinged David Strathairn energy), who decides to hold up a bank and take some hostages. In the standoff with police, he demands that Clark be released from prison to join him, and the police, led by Tommy Pony, comply–with the secret, grudging hope that Clark can contain the erratic Olsson and keep the hostages from harm. Then Clark does what Clark does best, playing both sides for his own benefit, and sure enough, the hostages come out of a miserable 5-day standoff, filthy, starving, traumatized, and solidly Team Clark.
You might think the series would climax with the Norrmalmstorg robbery, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But that’s not where the series stops, and this is where I find Clark to be particularly interesting and brave. Up to the hostage situation, Clark’s life is a nonstop montage, with his own probable sociopathy written between the lines. People drop in and out of his life without explanation–lovers, family, co-conspirators, children–but because the story is moving so fast, you might not question it anymore than Clark does. The truth though is that people disappear from Clark’s story because Clark doesn’t really care where they are or what they’re doing or how he might have ruined their lives. He doesn’t mean to hurt anyone, but neither is he curious about whether he has. After the Norrmalmstorg robbery, Clark coasts on his fame, and the series devolves again into a roundabout of prison and sexy parties, but this time, there’s a samey hollowness permeating the fun. Sex and crime and drugs, sex and crime and drugs, we get it. And as the story slows down, as Åkerlund spoons more of Clark’s boyhood trauma into the mix, Clark’s essential sociopathy comes into clearer focus, too. At one point, a criminal buddy literally poofs out of existence, and it’s not because the story is moving on without him. Nothing in Clark is moving on, especially Clark.
Clark’s peak becomes his nadir. And this is also where Åkerlund introduces Clark’s would-be biographer, the first person since Tommy who isn’t buying what he’s selling, not to mention the first woman to withstand his charm ever. Initially, Clark is excited by the idea of a book about him–why wouldn’t he be? More fuel for his celebrity–but once he realizes she’s talking to everyone whose lives he’s touched, his attitude abruptly shifts. Clark doesn’t like not being in control of his story. By this point in the series, Clark is losing all kinds of control, struggling almost nobly to live a life less criminal with his wife Marijke (Sofie Hoflack) and their son. He’s not very good at not being bad though.
No spoilers, but the final lines of both Clark and Lords of Chaos parallel each other, suggesting that as much lust as he has for their stories, Åkerlund has no wish to glorify his subjects. They are who they are, and they’ve done what they’ve done, and he’s shown you everything, truth and lies. Clark’s flashbacks to violence and abuse as a boy are tragic, but they’re only part of his portrait. He won’t be spared the biographer’s scrutiny of his neglect of his own children, his sensational, but not victimless crimes, his gleefully wasted potential. On the whole, Clark is a sometimes funny, sometimes pathetic visual feast from a director who is unafraid of using every technique of his medium to tell what happened, whether or not it’s technically factual. That said, he doesn’t seem to be terribly worried about what that story actually says either. His occupation seems to be entirely the story itself, a tragicomedy that will stay with you, even if you’re not sure how to feel about it, truth, lies, and all.
Clark is streaming on Netflix. Lords of Chaos is currently streaming on Hulu.
*Tim Curry, always.
Angela suggests pairing Clark with a nice drinking game.
Maybe take a shot every time you see full frontal nudity. Call in to work first.