Few countries produce as consistently high quality of film as Iceland. In my estimation, that is. The quantity of films that it produces is low, well at least those that somehow cross the pond and make it onto American screens, usually at film festivals such as Heartland. There are four Icelandic films that I’ve seen in this manner – Nói Albínói, The Seagull’s Laughter, Of Horses and Men and finally Metalhead. All are unique in their own way, most of them are depressing (an aspect of Scandinavian film that I tend to enjoy) but still manage a way to get a laugh or two in just in case, and all have a laser-pointed direction on what makes their characters tick and tock and they do it so well. Ragnar Bragason‘s Metalhead is no exception.
Metalhead is ostensibly about the stasis Hera (Thorbjorg Helga Thorgilsdottir) resides in after she witnesses her brother die in a brutal farm accident. After his death, she clings to the one thing that defined him – his metal music. Flash forward several years and she is clad in his black leather jacket, always carrying a walkman with tapes of his (and now her) favorite tunes. Frequently, she packs up her things and goes through the motions of moving from her small village to the city, but never goes through with it. Instead of leaving, she remains in her parents’ home, practicing her own metal music and missing out on life’s responsibilities and ambitions. Instead, she routinely gets drunk, steals neighbors’ tractors and makes a general nuisance of herself. But the tipping comes when, after meeting and falling for the new local pastor, himself a metal fan, and (her amorous advances are unrequited, she burns down the church mimicking the spate of church burnings blamed on Black Metal bands in Norway and Sweden. Hera is left with a choice – does she finally buckle down or contribute to her own demise.
While this film is most certainly centered on Hera’s journey, writer-director Bragason completes the picture by showing us her parents’, Karl (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) and Droplaug (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), journey to healing from their own loss and how each other’s ways of coping with the tragedy have affected the family since it happened. Bragason approaches the subject so elegantly in a way that contrasts so much with the pounding of the metal soundtrack that you might not think it possible to be so. I assure you, this is mos definitely the case. He is careful not to have the family’s grief spill into needless melodrama or other ridiculousness. The story itself grows from the scenes that precede it, nothing forced, and allowed to grow organically and is one of its main strengths. Even as Hera ups the ante on her shenanigans, we can really see that these are cries for help, not aimless occurrences intended to shock the audience or get cheap laughs. Without a doubt, the performances of the three leads, Sigurðsson, Geirharðsdóttir and especially Thorgilsdottir, are the highlight. Thorgilsdottir‘s portrayal of Hera is nuanced and natural and she carries the film. But the scenes between Sigurðsson and Geirharðsdóttir are just heartbreaking and pitch perfect. All three reminded of the great performances by the leads in Lance Edmands‘ Bluebird.
One thing about Icelandic films that is never hard to notice is the gorgeous photography. While the landscape is often thought of as barren, it is quite the opposite. Lush with mountains and waterfalls and fields of grasses, it is quite beautiful and DP August Jakobsson‘s lens captures it all. The opening shot is quite stunning and really sets the tone for what happens at the outset. I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the perfect match cut showing the passage of time when Hera sits on the lone bench waiting for the bus about ten minutes in. Really exquisite even if it an oft used tactic employed by editors and directors.
Bragason really plumps of the depths of the human experience to bring us this tale and it is wildly successful in capturing just that. We are able to feel Hera’s pain, her angst and her ambivalence without judging her as she circuitously arrives at a spot where she feels she is finally able to let go of what happened to her brother and start living her life as she wants it to be. I can’t speak highly enough of this film and the story it tells. If you happen to have a chance to see this, please do. I doubt you’ll regret ir and you certainly won’t forget it. And if you are a metal fan, you get the added bonus of getting to hear Megadeth, Judas Priest and Savatage all on the soundtrack.