“Think of a happy place,” goes the phrase when someone’s going through traumatic times. It’s harder to imagine a much more terrifying place than Bosnia circa 1995. Bosnia is generally nothing more than a vague notion or newspaper headlines from a far off war from most Americans. For the people living there, however, scratching out a meager existence and just trying to stay alive in a land ripped apart by hatred, Bosnia is a shattered landscape of atrocities and unspeakable horrors. Vlado (Sergiusz Zymelka), a nine-year old orphan, dreams of Norway. This semi-frozen Nordic country is his personal happy place; an idyllic, nearly mythical land where the Eskimos live.
Sharkey (Bob Hoskins) has no such illusions. Using UNICEF as a front, Sharkey’s unsavory mission is to find one healthy boy and bring him to Poland alive. He first deals with a corrupt Colonel (Krzysztof Majchrzak) who bargains with Sharkey to bring his young daughter to safety. When the vehicle in which the girl is riding runs over a land mine planted by Vlado’s gang, the distraught and enraged Colonel assumes Sharkey was part of the ambush and resolves to track him down and kill him. Sharkey soon coincidentally crosses paths with Vlado and, unaware that they’re in danger, the unlikely couple begins a dangerous run for the border with the Colonel in hot pursuit.
“Where Eskimos Live” is an intense, gripping and oftentimes horrifying road movie. Director Tomasz Wiszniewski’s film doesn’t help us understand the whys and wherefores of the seething Balkans conflict — what film could? — but it does bring the day to day hardships the civilians suffered out into the open. It shines a light on the sheer insanity, cruelty and pettiness of that war and, in the process, makes its horror more concrete.
Lest I forget, “Where Eskimos Live” also evolves into an unusual buddy movie. Hoskins is a perfect choice for Sharkey. A burly and ill-tempered mercenary on the surface, Hoskins’ Sharkey displays just enough compassion when he lets his guard down to make the audience believe he might have a heart after all. Majchrzak is also excellent as the precocious and streetwise orphan who effortlessly makes the transition from victim to partner to something more.
Despite the death and destruction on ample and graphic display here, “Where Eskimos Live” somehow manages to be a film of hope and redemption; qualities that have been sorely lacking in that part of the world for centuries.