Arts movie review

Stereotypes and subculture

‘Tom of Finland’ is a half-baked mess

Tom of Finland
Directed By Dome Karukoski
Written By Aleksi Bardy
Starring Pekka Strang, Lauri Tilkanen, Jessica Grabowsky
Rated R

Tom of Finland is a biopic of the artist of the same name, who pioneered the BDSM subculture through his homoerotic illustrations in beefcake magazines and pornographic comics from the ’50s to the ’80s. Touko Laaksonen, who adopted the aforementioned pseudonym early in his career, is known for his elaborate pencil work in depicting hyper-masculinized men, often wearing uniforms or leather outfits. The film portrays Laaksonen’s life and the circumstances surrounding his artistic influences. In doing so, the film is at its most interesting when depicting Laaksonen’s early life, during which his life as a soldier and struggle with concealing his sexuality shape his art and tastes. Roughly halfway through the film however, the story moves to America and takes a turn for the worse, losing focus and becoming clichéd and formulaic.

During World War II, Laaksonen, played by Pekka Strang, appears as a lieutenant as a part of the Finnish army. His attraction towards the other soldiers causes him to struggle in adapting; in a style befitting a horror flick, Laaksonen stalks soldiers in the park at night and slips his pornographic art under bathroom stalls in the hopes for a one-night stand. Laaksonen suffers a great deal of trauma as well; he witnesses one gay couple at the park receive a beating by the police and is thrown out of a bar after flirting with the wrong person. Interspersed between these memories is the present Laaksonen, struggling with alcoholism and smoking, who channels the vividness of his memories into his art. A particular memory involves him murdering a lone Russian paratrooper in an empty field, only for Laaksonen to admire the beauty of the dead man’s face and etch it into his consciousness. Strang does an excellent job in reeling in Laaksonen’s emotions in the face of these darker elements. The tension and gravity of Laaksonen’s plight are fascinating and are the highlights of the film, since they delve deeper into Laaksonen’s persona in an enriching manner.

Other plights include Laaksonen’s trip to Germany and the love triangle between his sister (Jessica Grabowsky) and his lover (Lauri Tilkanen). Neither plotline is very interesting; the status of Laaksonen as a veteran despite his sexuality saves him from being detained in Germany. It feels like a missed opportunity here not to explore the conflict between individuality and uniformity present with Laaksonen’s divergent sexuality in the military and to some extent in Laaksonen’s own art.

The second half of the film tumbles downhill considerably. The Finnish actors playing Americans deliver embarrassing dialogue as if they were in The Room, and there is a location change from the darkly serious Finland to the carefree, colorful America in the ’60s. Rushing to cover the later sections of Laaksonen’s life, the film zips through his popularity in America, censorship fight, and the AIDS crisis as if to mark off a checklist. The film attempts to morph into an inspirational underdog resistance story and instead provides unintended comedy due to the second half’s camp factor. The tonal shift is so appalling that it almost sours the events of the earlier half of the film. Perhaps this was inevitable considering the nature of Laaksonen’s art as something campy emerging from his trauma, but it seems as if adherence to historical accuracy ultimately prevented the narrative from congealing. If you are interested in films you can leave midway through, look no further.