As Iceland continues to break ground in the terrain of bleak crime cinema—much like South Korea, Australia and American Country Noir have over the past decade—a clear figurehead has emerged. His name is Baltasar Kormákur. He has a penchant for winding bloody yarns of despair, revenge and redemption into the frigid tapestries of his homeland. He also looks a helluva lot like the Scandinavian older brother of Colin Farrell.
What’s interesting about Kormákur is that, before creating his two best pieces of cinema—both filmed in Iceland with Icelandic casts and in the native tongue—he was already doing big-budget Hollywood flicks, directing Denzel, Marky Mark and Jake G in completely decent and also completely unremarkable blockbusters like 2 Guns, Contraband and Everest.
Fortunately for lovers of Nordic Noir and grim crime cinema, he went back to his native roots and filmed both The Oath and Trapped in Iceland between 2015 and 2016. Trapped, as I detailed in a previous post, is one of the better Nordic Noir series out there. And The Oath, as I’ll soon detail, is one of the better foreign crime thrillers—at least this side of South Korea—I’ve seen since Headhunters and Tell No One.
But before diving further into Kormákur’s circuitously serendipitous career moves, let’s get toThe Oath.
It starts in typical Icelandic fashion, with some bearded dudes in knitted sweaters wrangling horses outside a quaint farmhouse. We soon find that one of these men is Finnur (Kormákur as the lead in his own film), a heart surgeon tending to the last affairs of his father’s estate after the old man has kicked the bucket. A funeral follows, where we’re introduced to Finnur’s family and, most noticeably, his goth-y teenage daughter Anna (Hera Hilmar) who’s clearly in some sort of drug-induced, angsty downward spiral.
A scene later, we meet Anna’s tatted-up badboy drug dealer boyfriend, Óttar, who looks 20 years older than her and is constantly accompanied by his pitbull. He also drives a fancy car and hosts rapey drug parties in his posh penthouse. (Boyfriend material, clearly.) From here, shit goes south, as Finnur sees that ol’ Óttar is driving Anna toward an early grave.
In true viking vigilante form, Finnur decides to take matters into his own hands. This leads to a confrontation that pit father and boyfriend as foes. It also leads to shotgun shells filled with nails, kidnapping and torture, and our hero heart surgeon having a less familiar brand of blood on his hands. From the admixture of Finnur’s initial innocence and subsequent hellbent revenge, a character somewhere between Walter White in the first few episodes of Breaking Bad and Liam Neeson in Taken emerges.
The film’s title and moral conundrum stem from this transformation in Finnur. While the titular wordplay conjuring the Hippocratic Oath is no stroke of genius, Kormákur’s transformative performance is brilliant, and the taut narrative he winds (he also co-wrote the film) is a thing of grim—albeit somewhat predictable—beauty.
This is not to say that I’m heralding Kormákur as a great or even innovative director. While slightly more visually compelling than the understated Trapped, the cinematography here rarely does much to incorporate Iceland’s sublime landscapes—a feature that could easily give his crime cinema an added undercurrent of bone-chilling grimness.
But where the camerawork here is fine yet unremarkable—much like the fruits of Kormákur’s Hollywood career—the director is simply much more effective when given full reign over his projects. Where his creation Trapped was a meticulously plotted, slow-burn thriller more adherent to the Nordic Noir stamp, The Oath is a fast-paced thriller that thrives on its unrelenting tension. Both are covered in Kormákur’s prints—including a running ensemble of Iceland’s finest acting talent—and both prove that this guy is a force to be reckoned with when he brings the fight to his own turf.
Netflix acquired The Oath in the wake of Trapped‘s success. Here’s hoping the service takes the same cue on Kormákur’s earlier Icelandic crime flicks, namely The Deep and Jar City.
GRADE: B+ / A-