A neonoir ghost story for Christmas
Death stalks the shadows of an isolated dam in the far-north snows of Iceland!
vt Cold Trail
Iceland / 95 minutes / color with brief bw / Saga, Reykjavik, Angel Dir: Björn Br. Björnsson Pr: Magnús V. Sigurdsson, Kristinn Thordarson Scr: Kristinn Thordarson Cine: Vídir Sigurdsson Cast: Pröstur Leó Gunnarsson, Elva Osk Olafsdóttir, Hjalti Rögnvaldsson, Helgi Björnsson, Lilja Gudrún Porvaldsdóttir, Tómas Lemarquis, Anita Briem, Harald G. Haraldsson, Margrét Helga Jóhannsdóttir, Hanna María Karlsdóttir, Lars Brygmann, Birta Júlía Porbjarnardóttir, Sólveig Gudmundsdóttir, Olafur Gudmundsson, Hilmir Snær Gudnason, Bryndís Jónsdóttir, Stefán Jónsson.
Hardbitten, womanizing Reykjavik investigative journalist Baldur Mariuson (Gunnarsson) is more interested in pursuing the latest sex-scandal story—about a company CEO, Kjartan (Gudnason), molesting his daughter—than he is in a story his much younger colleague Elin (Briem) has picked up about a security guard accidentally falling to his death from a dam in a remote part of the country. His editor, Jón (Jónsson), feels the same way: sex sells papers. The dam story is unimportant, even if the dam is rumored to be haunted by the spirit of a workman who died there during the construction and even if the relevant security camera just happened to be switched off when the supposed accident happened.
Baldur (Pröstur Leó Gunnarsson) gets a call.
But all that changes for Baldur when he discovers from his mother (Jóhannsdóttir) that the man who fell off the dam was his own estranged father, Tóti (Haraldsson), who left her before Baldur’s birth. Baldur becomes determined to find out what kind of a man his father really was. He sneaks into the Reykjavik morgue, then steals the police medical records. He learns that, although it was the fall that killed Tóti, he’d immediately beforehand been stabbed in the chest by a sharp spike of some kind.
The puzzling wound on Toti’s body.
Baldur resigns from the paper when Jón refuses to put him on the dam story. He applies for, and gets, the job that had been his father’s, and insinuates himself incognito among the little crew working at the dam:
- Asta (Porvaldsdóttir), the boozy chief cook and bottle-washer, who had a casual, on-and-off sexual relationship with Tóti,
- Karl (Björnsson) and Siggi (Lemarquis), the other two security guards,
- and Pétur (Rögnvaldsson), the head of Dam Security, who was a friend of Tóti’s from ’way back.
Tómas Lemarquis as Siggi.
Clearly Baldur is somewhat unwelcome. As soon as his back is turned Karl and Siggi, who has a definite sociopathic glint in his gaze, begin talking about arranging “a little accident” for him. The hostility intensifies when Karl, snooping, comes across Baldur’s Press card.
Baldur (Pröstur Leó Gunnarsson) and Freyja (Elva Osk Olafsdóttir) arrive at the dam.
But Baldur’s befriended by Freyja (Olafsdóttir), a strong-minded woman who lives nearby with her crazed mother (Karlsdóttir) and ferries mail and supplies to the dam by snowmobile when the roads are impassable.
Freyja (Elva Osk Olafsdóttir) tends her horses, does errands for the dam personnel, and looks after her tragically demented mom (Hanna María Karlsdóttir, in background).
Eventually Baldur discovers the missing security-camera images and can see that his father’s death was no accident, but by then it’s become plain to him that Mom was right: Tóti was a pretty vile specimen, a brute. Our immediate assumption is that the other dam personnel want Baldur out of the way because they’re trying to cover up the truth about Tóti’s death, but in reality the reason he’s a threat to them is something quite different. In fact, there are two quite different motives at play, one ancient and one modern. And it’s because of the ancient crime that Tóti died . . . and not for any of the reasons you might think.
Karl (Helgi Björnsson) takes aim.
Volte-faces like the ones in this movie are of course very typical of Scandinoir, which we can here take to include Icelandic noir. But director Björnsson and scripter Thordarson carry the meme further than that. The movie confounds our expectations in other ways too—expectations born of the clichés of modern Anglophone cinema. For example, Baldur does not by the end of the movie pair off with his far younger babe colleague, Elin, which is what I depressedly anticipated at the outset—in fact, it’s clear that she regards his occasional flirtatious remarks as a joke—but instead falls for a woman of his own age. And, as Elin advises him on what to do about that attachment, it becomes clear that all along their relationship has been more of a father–daughter matter. And, besides, she’s married with a child.
Anita Briem as Elin.
Similarly, when Freyja and Baldur strip off to bathe in a hot spring we expect, wearily, that we’re in for some torrid writhings. Not at all. “No funny stuff,” she tells him, and he immediately backs off. Once more, what we thought was going to happen doesn’t, and yet the unexpected turn seems, in the event, completely normal. It’s a refreshingly adult worldview in which people can be unabashedly naked around each other and, even if attracted—as these two already are—don’t have to immediately start grappling.
Again, when vaguely spooky things happen to Baldur we assume this has nothing to do with the dam’s supposed ghost—that it’s just the guards trying to creep him out, or his own susceptible imagination running away with itself. Yet we’re wrong about that, too. Every now and then during the narrative a mysterious figure appears, usually unnoticed by the rest of the cast but sometimes reifying in order to intervene in the action—as for example when he intervenes to rescue Baldur from the blizzard in which an attempt has been made to murder him. It’s not the only time that this ghost—which proves to be that of Freyja’s father Bóndinn (Brygmann), the worker who died during the dam’s construction—will save Baldur’s life.
A sudden appearance of Bóndinn (Lars Brygmann) saves the lovers from a killer.
Freyja (Elva Osk Olafsdóttir) rescues her mom (Hanna María Karlsdóttir) from the snow.
Normally I’d object pretty strenuously to the injection of the supernatural into a neonoir, but here it works well—although, come to think of it, the mixture didn’t turn out too shabbily in The USUAL SUSPECTS (1995), either. Surprisingly, the presence of the ghost, and the fact that if you were so minded you could just about approach this as a ghost story rather than a crime one, doesn’t affect the movie’s integrity as a neonoir one iota. The supernatural aspect seems like a perfectly natural part of the whole.
The five-year-old Freyja (Birta Júlía Porbjarnardóttir) witness the attack that drove her mom out of her wits.
And, just to add one more example of the movie’s taking the unexpected course, it doesn’t even end when you think it’s going to. Everything seems to have been wrapped up just fine, but in fact there’s still another ten or fifteen minutes to go before the movie’s real, and very satisfying, resolution, which is more about love than death.
Freyja (Elva Osk Olafsdóttir) and Baldur (Pröstur Leó Gunnarsson) prepare to say farewell.
For the most part this tale is quite excellently acted, even in the minor roles. For example, Karlsdóttir, as Freyja’s witless mother, has almost no lines to speak and for the most part just plods slowly around, yet she’s so engaged in her role that her contribution is far from negligible. Porvaldsdóttir, as the matronly, drunk, earthily lusty Asta is another case in point. Even Gudmundsdóttir, as the newspaper’s receptionist whom Baldur beds for a night and then rudely dumps, presents us with a wholly rounded character rather than a stereotype. The laurels certainly go to Gunnarsson and Olafsdóttir (although the latter tends to overdo the swaggering a tad) as the central pair, yet even to say this is to obscure how much the rest of the cast contribute.
The dam itself, cold, brooding and enigmatic, holding its secrets close to itself, is almost another cast member.
Elva Osk Olafsdóttir as Freyja.
As will be obvious, I liked this movie very much indeed. Yet it’s not without its flaws (which, to be fair, I didn’t notice in the first time of watching, so engrossed was I by the rest). I said above that Baldur quits his job when Jón refuses to send him out to cover the dam story, yet later on, as Baldur liaises with Elin over the phone, it becomes obvious that Baldur hasn’t quit at all. I’m not sure where this continuity error came from. And I’m not sure, either, why color filters were used so much: the outdoors shots often have a blue cast and those in the depths of the dam’s architecture generally a greenish one. At one point we see a panorama of Reykjavik with a green cast that makes it look like one of those badly color-balanced postcards that used to proliferate all over the UK and presumably just about everywhere else. This overuse of filters seems a very odd maneuver. The snow would look quite cold enough without the embellishment! That said, sometimes the stratagem works extremely well; overall, Sigurdsson’s cinematography is very elegant and the snowscapes often very lovely.
This movie won a couple of Eddas (the “Icelandic Oscars,” for what that’s worth in such a small country), although not major ones, and made little impact elsewhere. I’d suggest it’s worth the effort to find a copy.
There are some very palatable songs on the soundtrack, notably by Emiliana Torrini and the indigenous band Ampop; you can find more about the latter, which is a bit like Oasis but more interesting, and stream their songs (which are often fine but a bit variable; “Spring” is a symphony of banality, one of those tracks you wish had been strangled at birth) on Bandcamp. Ampop later partially metamorphosed into the band Blindfold. “Two Directions,” on Ampop’s Sail to the Moon album, is featured in the movie and is especially recommended.
Freyja (Elva Osk Olafsdóttir) fights for her life.
 No relation to a certain other movie Asta!
On Icelandic Cinema Online: Cold Trail