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-[Film Reviews]-, European Cinema

Fjord Filmmaking: ‘Cold Prey’ (2006), ‘Trollhunter’ (2010), ‘The Wave’ (2015), & ‘Thelma’ (2017)

Directed by: André Øvredal [1], Roar Uthaug [2, 3], Joachim Trier [4] || Produced by: John M. Jacobsen, Sveinung Golimo [1], Martin Sundland, Magne Lyngner [2], Are Haeidenstorm [3], Thomas Robsahm [4]

Screenplay by: André Øvredal [1], Thomas Moldestad [2], John Kåre Raake, Harald Rosenløw-Egg [3], Joachim Trier, Eskil Vogt [4] || Starring: Otto Jespersen, Hans Morten Hansen, Tomas Alf Larsen, Johanna Mørck, Knut Nærum, Robert Stoltenberg, Glenn Erland Tosterud [1], Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Rolf Kristian Larsen, Viktoria Winge, Endre Martin Midtstigen, Tomas Alf Larson [2], Kristoffer Joner, Ane Dahl Torp, Jonas Hoff Oftebro, Edith Haagenrud-Sande, Fridtjov Såheim, Thomas Bo Larson [3], Eili Harboe, Kaya Wilkins, Henrik Rafaelsen, Ellen Dorrit Petersen [4]

Music by: Magnus Beite [2, 3], Ola Fløttum [4] || Cinematography: Hallvard Bræin [1], Daniel Voldheim [2], John Christian Rosenlund [3], Jakob Ihre [4] || Edited by: Per-Erik Eriksen [1], Jon Endre Mork [2], Christian Siebenherz [3], Oliver Bugge Coutté [4] || Country: Norway || Language: Norwegian

Running Time: 104 minutes [1], 97 minutes [2], 105 minutes [3], 116 minutes [4] || 1 = Trollhunter, 2 = Cold Prey, 3 = The Wave, 4 = Thelma

Outside of Swedish filmmaking, which consists of everything from the European New Wave works of Ingmar Bergman (e.g. The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries [both 1957]), the cinematic adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium (2009) trilogy, Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In (2008), to the prolific Skarsgard family (e.g. Stellan, Bill, Alexander, Gustaf, etc.), all of whom have long since matriculated into the Western filmmaking mainstream, I realized in the past month I had little exposure to Scandinavian cinema. The cold, iconic north of continental Europe (i.e. the wealthy, highly developed Nordic countries of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark) and its greater island diaspora (e.g. Iceland, Greenland) are home to identifiable Arctic landscapes showcased in numerous English-language cinema (e.g. Icelandic tundra features prominently in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins [2005] and Interstellar [2014], as well as Game of Thrones [2011-2019]; the coming-of-age genre-blender, Hanna [2011], includes Finland’s Lake Kitka), though due to the region’s small population (even combined, the Scandinavia peninsula plus nearby island states equals less than 30 million people), their film industries remain modest compared to the major studio output of Hollywood, Bollywood, South Indian Cinema, Japanese Cinema, Korean Cinema, etc.

From revisionist takes on mythological beasts (Trollhunter, top) to special-FX heavy disaster flicks (The Wave, middle) to puzzling awards-bait (Thelma, bottom), the cinema of Norway has it all.

What the Nordic film cultures lack in quantity, however, one could argue they compensate for in quality, as I do. Today’s spotlights include works by Norwegian filmmakers Roar Uthaug & André Øvredal, who’ve each contributed their auteur talents to Hollywood productions in the past decade with Tomb Raider (2018) and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019), respectively. Øvredal has transitioned to bigger budgeted English-language productions for the most part since his native breakout (Trollhunter, see below), while Uthaug’s next project is another high-concept, mid-budgeted genre film for Netflix (Troll [2022], sensing a pattern here?). We’ll also compare these harder edged, genre-focused works to more international awards-friendly dramatic cinema by fellow Norwegian filmmaker, Joachim Trier. Like most prominent Scandinavian productions, including many of the aforementioned influential Swedish films, most of the pictures discussed here were funded at least in part by taxpayer supported grants from federal government organizations like the Norwegian, Swedish, and/or Danish Film Institutes (from a corporate American or Hollywood perspective, film production feels different oversees, where public financing of the arts is more common; see also Screen Australia’s funding of The Babadook [2014], Relic [2020], The Stranger [2022], etc.).

First up is Øvredal’s Trollhunter, which may be the most well known genre film of this bunch thanks to its mockumentary style and eclectic mix of science-fiction, fantasy, and comedy overtones. The movie’s central premise is perhaps its greatest asset, as it portrays a fictional group of college student documentarians who stumble upon a government wildlife management conspiracy; they discover that trolls, prominent mythological beasts of Scandinavian folklore, are real… and Jens Stoltenberg is hiding the truth! Filmed with the cinéma véritéesque handheld camerawork that was all the rage in the found-footage explosion of the late 2000s to early 2010s (e.g. Rec [2007, 2009], Cloverfield [2008], Paranormal Activity [2007-2012]), much of Trollhunter’s chaotic visual style feels dated by today’s standards given how shamed once prominent cinematographic techniques like shaky-cam now are by many cinephiles. The almost nonstop camera movements and rough audio, though they help sell the realism of the titular monsters, grow tiresome well before the 1-hour mark and can’t overcome the nighttime computer generated imagery’s (CGI) unconvincing animation. Perhaps the mockumentary’s greatest strength beyond its premise, however, is the memorable lead performance by Norwegian comedian and noted antisemite, Otto Jesperson, whose deadpan, sarcastic performance gels with the younger supporting cast and sells the narrative’s high-concept when its special FX falter.

Transitioning to the works of Roar Uthaug, Cold Prey and The Wave are perhaps my favorite of the recent Norwegian pictures I sampled, though the latter is much more recommendable than the former. Cold Prey (“Fritt Vilt” in Norwegian, or literally “Open Season”) is essentially a mid-2000s Scandinavian take on the stereotypical Hollywood slasher, the horror subgenre of relentless, often emotionless serial killers armed with bladed weapons that populated American cinemas from the late 1970s-1980s. Shot in the Jotunheimen region of the Scandinavian Mountains over a brutal two-year shoot, Cold Prey’s physical backdrop is its most memorable feature and does much to maintain a sense of dread, isolation, and powerlessness amongst its central cast as they’re stalked by a silent killer in an abandoned mountain ski lodge. Uthaug paces the brisk yet detailed 97-minute runtime well, establishing all principal characters before the carnage begins, while director of photography Daniel Voldheim gets the most out of the dank, dark, grimy lodge’s indoor sets.  The major shortcomings of Prey, for better or worse, are how unambitious its narrative is relative to the glut of interchangeable American slashers of the 1980s; its primary villain (Rune Melby) is intimidating but forgettable, and the reveal of his true identity feels pointless.

The Wave, a disaster film in the vein of 1990s Hollywood blockbusters like Twister (1996), Dante’s Peak (1997), and Deep Impact (1998), represents the apex of Uthaug’s filmography thus far, utilizing high-concept cliches to maximum effect without skimping on the fundamental character development that makes its FX-driven set-pieces impactful. Perhaps more reliant on the iconic fjords, mountainous biogeography, and coastal Arctic topography than any of these highlighted Norwegian films, The Wave describes the hypothetical collapse of the Åkerneset crevice, culminating in a gigantic avalanche and tsunami that threatens the local Geiranger village. Its primary family drama, brought to life by veteran actors Kristoffer Joner and Ane Dahl Torp (male and female leads, respectively), is an archetypal screenplay trope executed with surgical precision. Together with effective nighttime cinematography, high production-value arial camerawork, great set-designs, and minimal yet convincing CGI, The Wave’s solid f—ing script constructs a near flawless roller-coaster ride of natural disaster tension. 

Last and by far the least of these Scandinavian features is Joachim Trier’s quasi-supernatural thriller, Thelma. Thelma describes the isolated, hyper-religious upbringing of its eponymous adolescent lead (Eili Harboe), who manifests bizarre, inexplicable psychokinetic abilities after moving to Oslo for her university studies. A mild genre-twist to an otherwise typical coming-of-age drama, Thelma is similar to Julia Ducournau’s acclaimed French dramas about young adult female maturation (Raw [2016], Titane [2021]), but feels more dependent on self-important social commentary and uses its genre flourishes less effectively. For one thing, Thelma’s simple narrative isn’t worth its near two-hour length, while its protagonist’s extreme actions, whether intentional or not, aren’t sympathetic from any reasonable standpoint.

Cold Prey’s “final girl,” Ingrid Bolsø Berdal in her feature debut, battles a stereotypical slasher villain with the latter’s signature pickaxe.

This sampling of Norwegian cinema represents, on the whole, a diverse array of genre filmmaking whose quality depends on their directors’ willingness to embrace cinematic storytelling formula. However isolated Scandinavian film industries may feel from a North American perspective, the fundamentals of effective visual storytelling remain the same; Joachim Trier’s melodramatic, on-the-nose depiction of female sexual liberation makes me as apprehensive about his “Oslo Trilogy” (see also: Reprise [2006], Oslo, August 31st [2011], and The Worst Person in the World [2021]) as any English-language awards-bait; André Øvredal’s Trollhunter demonstrates the power of a creative premise and unconventional casting, but recalls the inherent cinematographic weaknesses of the 2000s-2010s’ found-footage fad; Roar Uthag’s Cold Prey and The Wave, last of all, argue for the enduring appeal of high-concept genre thrills in the great outdoors.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: It may seem like hell’s frozen over there in Scandinavia, but new millennium Norwegian filmmaking feels white-hot and diverse given the promise of André Øvredal and Roar Uthaug’s still growing filmographies, even if their directorial execution doesn’t always match their screenwriting ambition.

However… Trollhunter would’ve been better served with a combination of documentarian-style camerawork beyond the found-footage subgenre a la David Ayer’s End of Watch (2012) and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009). Cold Prey’s villain and Thelma’s protagonist have little personality.

—> The Wave comes RECOMMENDED, I’m ON THE FENCE with respect to Cold Prey and Trollhunter, and DO NOT RECOMMEND Thelma.

? Does the United States’ National Endowment for the Arts ever fund independent film productions?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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