At the beginning of this film, a young man who will end up being our protagonist cowers in the corner as three natives of this language scurry by discussing some of the great authors in their literary tradition. It is of no coincidence that the last name we hear as distance mutes their voices belongs to this writer of genius whose "shadow is so big you can't see the sun." It is likewise appropriate that Gogol's most famous short story features a protagonist not unlike Seppo Ilmari Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen), the sweet, loyal, and utterly hapless security guard around whom the film revolves.
Koistinen, as he is referred to exclusively apart from one vital scene, has all the makings of a soul for whom society has neither patience nor space. In a quick series of vignettes, Koistinen incurs the annoyance of his superiors who assure each other once he leaves the room that "he will learn," gets bullied by his colleagues (what we understand to be a regular occurrence), orders a drink and gets rebuffed by the blonde to his right and threatened by the large man to her right, almost gets smashed by a bathroom door as he wallflowers himself to an awkward spot, and is generally stared at by other bar patrons with the repugnance that overcomes some people upon the sight of incorrigible floundering. He claims this will all end with the establishment of his own business (we see him in some class or consultation taking furious notes), but he is abused in his loan interview and forced out the side door like some embarrassing relative. Unlike most underdogs, Koistinen is a handsome fellow who under normal circumstances would not have any trouble getting a date; what normal behavior entails, however, remains to be seen. His behavior is identical to everyone around him, but the results of his actions do not even sniff the others' success or efficacy. This strange hitch can be attributed to Kaurismäki's typically laconic methods whereby the only real character is Koistinen and not one of his actions is real at all. While he struggles to behave the way society dictates – in other words, the way the privileged and powerful behave and prevent others from behaving – the entire supporting cast, with a few allies to be revealed in time, provides nothing more than obstacles to his own development. So if everyone else reacts in a predictable way because they are predictable and clichéd, Koistinen reacts that way because he thinks that is what he needs to do to get ahead, not realizing that as a sensitive and benign exception in a cold, malefic world, the opposite would help him.
With this setup in mind, the plot – as film noir cookie cutter as all its characters – suddenly becomes very dynamic. Koistinen's duties as night watchman include security for a jewelry store, and so we are hardly surprised when a young blonde (Ilkka Koivula) takes an interest in him and almost demands that he return the favor. They go out on one of the most unilateral dates in cinematic history, most brilliantly embodied by the movie house scene in which she is watching something coy and light and he is only watching her as if the real film were taking place in the pinna of her ear. The abrupt cuts from scene to scene give one the impression of how futile an existence like this can quickly become – even in a privileged and beautiful country like Finland – although those in love are supposed to get along and separate themselves from the rest of the world. The blonde's true intentions, or at least those of the people who are interested in Koistinen, would only come across to the most callow of viewers as novel and require no explanation here. Yet at every step the photography is impeccable, such as the extra time given to the band whose lead singer has everything a young woman interested in rock singers might desire, another contrast to our seemingly talentless protagonist. A film as unimaginative and impatient as most of the cast of Lights in the Dusk would let her carry on with him, throwing salt and fire into a very open wound. But unlike the vast majority of his peers, Kaurismäki has no interest in cruelty or subjugation. All that he wants to show is the possibility of redemption, the bad stuff occurring off-screen so that we are often left staring at just-vacated premises.
Another fascinating conceit is the polyglot soundtrack, which associates a certain stereotype of the language with its scene. It begins in Spanish, almost as a harbinger of a Carmen-like character, moves to American rock when consummation seems possible, drifts into snowy weather and Russian when Koistinen has lost all hope (Russians also seem to be partly responsible for his predicament), has Finnish when he regains his freedom, as if he were restored to his "natural surroundings," then seems to conclude in French when he and one of his few allies accept their fate. There are countless people just like poor Koistinen and their routines in both work and love are as hopeless as his. Many more live to take advantage of such people because that is really the only way they can satisfy their selfish urges, not to mention feel better about their own shortcomings. That's why Koistinen should have been paying more attention to that radio description of a scorpion: its abdomen might indeed resemble a string of pearls, but at the end there is only pain.