Grunge is the operative word for Junk Mail, a deadpan black comedy from Norway that would never pass muster with the Norwegian Tourist Board. This tale of a shiftless mail carrier whose prying nature puts him in serious danger takes place in an Oslo bereft of charm, a filthy, sickly green city peopled by muggers, bullies, slackers and ill-tempered bureaucrats. But, against this gloomy mise-en-sc'ne, first-time feature director Pal Sletaune has fashioned a funny and clever caper with a most unlikely romantic hero.

Tim Roth look-alike Robert Skjaerstad stars as Roy, prime candidate for the title 'laziest postman in town.' To make his daily rounds easier, Roy dumps stacks of mail in a deep hole inside a train tunnel, and he has no compunction about opening up personal correspondence that promises to titillate. When Line (Andrine Saether), an attractive, hearing-impaired woman on his route, absentmindedly leaves her keys in her mailbox, Roy uses the opportunity to snoop inside her apartment. There, he hears a mysterious message on her answering machine from an angry fellow named Georg, who warns, 'You were just as much a part of it as I was!' (Line, it turns out, was with Georg when he robbed a security guard and left him for dead.) Roy crosses paths with Line again when, hospitalized following a mugging, he spies the distraught woman checking on the status of the guard. Later, Line takes an overdose of sleeping pills, but Roy just happens to be making an afternoon pit stop at her place and anonymously saves her life. The smitten postman is on hand once again when the girl has a subway rendezvous with the sinister Georg, and his foolhardy attempt to get even with Line's tormentor leads to a deadly confrontation.

Clocking in at 80 minutes, Junk Mail is slight but divertingly offbeat, with its intricate comic structure and disreputable slug of a leading man. Sletaune and co-writer Jonny Halberg fill the movie with sly little gags emphasizing the drab existence of their characters: Roy washes his underarms at the kitchen sink, eats his dinner out of a can he stabs open with a steak knife, and has a weird compulsion to nibble on other people's leftovers. Scenes of danger and suspense are consistently laced with humor, capped by the nasty payback Georg receives when another aggrieved party confuses him with Roy. The movie ends with the makings of a love story, even if it's a one-sided love triggered by violence and voyeurism.

Skjaerstad underplays nicely as a man of little consequence or conscience whose infatuation transforms him into a fumbling action hero. Saether conveys Line's despair while showing glimmers of spirit, and Per Egil Aske is suitably menacing as Georg. Cinematographer Kjell Vassdal and production designer Karl Juliusson, in keeping with the movie's grubby attitude, make all of Oslo look as though the streetcleaners and housekeepers have been on strike for a year.

--Kevin Lally