Something Nordic this way Comes: The Oath (on Netflix)

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As Iceland continues to break ground in the terrain of bleak crime cinemamuch like South Korea, Australia and American Country Noir have over the past decadea 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.

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Kormákur and Farrell: Separated at brood.

What’s interesting about Kormákur is that, before creating his two best pieces of cinemaboth filmed in Iceland with Icelandic casts and in the native tonguehe 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 thrillersat least this side of South KoreaI’ve seen since Headhunters and Tell No One.

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Aksel Hennie in Headhunters, one of the best foreign thrillers of the century—filmed across the pond in Norway.

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.

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“Ugh, dad—Iceland, like, totally blows. Speaking of blow…”

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.

Gísli Örn Garðarsson and Baltasar Kormákur in The Oath

“I eat pieces of hákarl like you for breakfast!”

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 grimalbeit somewhat predictablebeauty.

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 landscapesa feature that could easily give his crime cinema an added undercurrent of bone-chilling grimness. 

But where the camerawork here is fine yet unremarkablemuch like the fruits of Kormákur’s Hollywood careerthe 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 printsincluding a running ensemble of Iceland’s finest acting talentand both prove that this guy is a force to be reckoned with when he brings the fight to his own turf.

Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson

Speaking of Icelandic ultraviolence, I was in Reykjavík earlier this year and snapped a photo of Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, AKA “The Mountain” from Game of Thrones. He grunted at me.

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-
IMDb: 6.7

-Sam Adams

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Blue Detective: “Trapped” avalanches Iceland to the forefront of Nordic Noir

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The mining is in high-gear in the Nordic Noir landscape. Where Fortitude broke the ice and tunneled into its festering recesses, creator Baltasar Kormákur’s Trapped thrives on creating its own living hell within the crevasse of an isolated Northern Icelandic port village. It’s in this frigid microcosm that a brilliantly acted, tense and bleak murder-mystery unfoldsfinally giving the quiet island-country a voice amongst one of the most alluring bleak film movements on the planet.

To be fair, the sublime, rolling glacial terrain of Iceland has long graced our screens. But, as location spots, its beauty lent itself more as a geographical ghostwriter to foreign and fictional lands. Consider the visually arresting opening sequence of Prometheus, or John Snow being informed of his limited mental acumen by his beloved, robin-haired Wildling. These scenes took place in Iceland, but the eventsas we know them cinematicallyreally unfolded in Planet LV-223, and “North of the Wall.” Heck, even the aforementioned Fortitude was filmed mainly in Iceland, even though the show is supposed to take place in Norway.

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Fortitude‘s phenomenal first season included one of the best finales ever seen in a detective show. Its second season was serviceable.

Point being, Trapped is one of the first pieces of crime cinema to reach global audiences with a certified Icelandic export stamp on it. But more on that laterlet’s get to the plot.

Trapped begins with fire and iceits opening scene depicting a flashback of a young girl burned alive, followed shortly thereafter by a headless, limbless corpse being pulled out of the freezing ocean by stunned fishermen.

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Lend me a hand…

As soon as local police start investigating the cadaver, a massive storm hits and the tiny port town is snowed in. This prevents the swinging-dick, bigwig police from Reykjavík to offer their assistance. It also becomes clear that the foul play is linked to a massive ferry that’s just docked. The ship’s shady captain, a corrupt mayor, a fishy hotelier and a slimy underling politico are just a few in the Clue-like assemblage of suspects that three small town cops must sift through to put the pieces together.

The most complex performance comes from the American-born veteran actor Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (recognizable from from his role as the grimy, prophetic meth dealer who delivered one of the baddest pieces of dialogue in one of True Detective Se1’s best scenes). His detective Andri plays the lead as a man with the look and softness of an oversized teddy bear, but also the fierce, hunting instincts of a polar bear.

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“You got a demon, little man. And I don’t like your face. It makes me wanna do things to it.”

Other compelling performances come from Andri’s estranged wife Agnes (Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir), visiting from out-of-town with a new boytoy in tow. As the storm shutters everyone in, Andri’s condition becomes even more pitiable as he endures his wife sharing a bedroom with boytoy down the hall from the couch he crashes on.

As the father of the incinerated girl, Pálmi Gestsson also turns in a complex performance as a man whose very existence is a rumination on grief and vengeance. In a show that doesn’t leave loose ends, his story comes full circle through a wicked stroke of poetic justice that ends in Gestsson delivering one of Trapped’s most profound and poignant scenes.

One last performance worth mentioning is that of Baltasar Breki Samper as Hjörturthe mysterious, scar-faced boyfriend of the dead girl. As he broodingly mopes and dopes around the little village in an oversized hoodie, Hjörtur becomes both in character traits and appearance the tortured embodiment of an Icelandic Jesse Pinkman.

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      “Life’s a bitch…”                                 “Yeah, bitch.”

Now back to the interplay between Trapped and its country of origin. Despite that Trapped is Iceland’s highest-budgeted series on record, it doesn’t go to lengths to boast about, or showcase, a sense of geographical or national identity. The bulk of the series is filmed in the small, Northern port city of Siglufjörðura place removed from the tourism bustle that has hit the nation by storm in recent years. And while a small amount of the show’s activity takes place in Reykjavík, Trapped isn’t concerned with providing a cinematographic tour of its capitol. A brief cityscape shot is providedseemingly for no other purpose than narrative clarity.

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Iceland’s stunning Blue Lagoon—a tourist draw Trapped could give two shits about.

This non-geo-centric approach is a departure from great crime shows like Breaking Bad, of which Vince Gilligan described its Albuqerque location as a “central character.” It’s also fitting, in multiple ways. It would seem counterintuitive to provide lingering, aerials of Iceland’s magnificently sublime glaciers and sprawling wilderness expanse in a show centered around a concept of claustrophobia. As a straightforward, bleak and rugged crime drama, Trapped is also under no obligation to kowtow to atmospheric localism to deliver the visceral gut punch it provides. And frankly, it doesn’t need it. This minimalist approach simply doesn’t hold the aesthetic appeal of similar dark, detective shows like Fortitude or The Killing.

That’s not to say that the cinematography is inept or ineffective in capturing a distinct feeling of placequite the opposite. It just so happens thatoutside of the show’s Icelandic dialogue and localeit could most likely have the same effect were it filmed in Alaska, the Antarctic, etc. Trapped is undoubtedly an Icelandic show. It’s just not unabashedly one.Ólafur Darri Ólafsson the shiningAs for narrative drawbacks, Trapped’s only one is that with such a large cast of characters and such a sprawling murder mystery, it can be difficult to remember who some of the side characters are when they’re mentioned in conjunction with investigations. The show could be difficult to follow if one didn’t simply binge itnot that each character doesn’t have a meaningful role to play, or that plotlines are overly complex. Someone involved in the production may have caught on to this, as each episode is prefaced by an appreciatvely throrough recap of events (necessary even when bingeing).

All said, Trapped is Nordic Noir at its bestthanks in large part to Ólafsfon’s standout performance, a well-crafted and resolved narrative, and an introspective ability to work within the emotional expanse of its geographically limited confines.

GRADE: A / A-
IMDb: 8.2

-Sam Adams