Director: Magnus von Horn
15 | 1h 42min | Drama | 11 March 2016 (UK)
This debut from Writer/director Magnus von Horn is a Swedish/Polish collaboration and saw involvement from dogme co-founder Lars von Trier. Von Horn’s film certainly feels like it has swum in those Scandinavian waters, being an austere, precise and very sorrowful piece, with a narrative that batas about issues of guilt, forgiveness and the nature/nurture divide. It bears some similarity to Thomas Vinterberg’s acclaimed 2014 drama The Hunt too, in that the plot likewise centres on a figure trying to re-enter a community who’s members are convinced of his irredeemable guilt, with lynch-mob escalation the inevitable result.
What makes lead character – Swedish teenager John – different from The Hunt’s tormented lead however is that this young boy is actually guilty of a crime. This is made explicitly clear by way of our introduction to him, as we first see the rake-thin, sullen youth packing up his things in what seems to be a remand home dormitory. His stiff and tight-lipped father is waiting for him. The drive home appears mundane and there is little conversation, until the father suddenly explodes with anger over the issue of John’s seatbelt. This violent interruption is our first clue, apart from the correctional facility that they have just left, that whatever John did to earn himself a stay in that prison is not going to be conducive to an easy reintroduction to the outside world. Furthermore, as John walks the streets, and tries to return to school, it becomes clear that his crime is neither forgiven nor forgotten by his small-town neighbours. John’s own odd behaviour and a series of coincidences soon conspire to provoke those around him to give voice to baser instincts.
This kind of plot arc, where unease in a community builds inevitably to an explosion, is not exactly anything new, but von Horn generates tension and intrigue through denying us any clue as to what it was John actually did. We only get fragments through various bits of dialogue, which encourages a closer study of all those around the boy. Why does a 40-something woman suddenly attack him in a supermarket, following which John sneaks into her house so he can lie in what seems to be her child’s bedroom? Why is John’s relationship to his old friend Kim so fractured now? Who is this ‘girl’ that everyone keeps mentioning in hushed tones? Other students shun him in the classroom, trip him in the cafeteria, and punch him by his locker.
With no background information about John, and with John himself largely mute, we are encouraged to scrutinise more closely the behaviour of the other people around him, particularly his father. A conservative, quick-to-anger patriarchal type who it is easy to picture being an overbearing presence (he trains his sons to sit upright at the table by placing a knife between their shoulder blades and the seat back), it is tempting to think the apple has not fallen far from the tree when more evidence emerges that John might be harbouring violent behavioural problems. But to his credit, von Horn’s screenplay never offers easy answers or any obvious judgement on the characters that orbit John, and their responsibility for his nature, with the only real stumble (by way of over-heavy symbolising) being the introduction of a dog-euthanising, dementia-addled grandfather.
The film can’t quite maintain the same kind of pull once the backstory becomes clearer, and lead actor Ulrik Munther (a pop star in his native Sweden) maybe could have done with being a little less buttoned-up: it is only towards the end that he starts delivering the emotional ripples the film really needs. A sense of plot contrivance also starts to nip at the film’s heels as the plot develops, with John’s behaviour appearing unnecessarily provocative and even plain dumb at times given his presumably precarious parolee status, and the fact that spunky classmate Malin seems to fall for him quickly also seems unlikely given how suspiciously the community views John and the specific nature of his crime. This is one of those films more content to ask questions than offer answers, which, combined with the grim tone, will undeniably result in it not being to everyone’s taste. But those flaws aside, this is a well-handled, intelligent and quietly confident debut that suggests we will be hearing a lot more about von Horn in the near future.