The title of Icelandic director Hlynur Pálmason’s second feature refers to a saying of his country, that when earth and sky are indistinguishably white, the dead can speak to us; and it opens on just such a fog-bound day when, in a pre-credit sequence, we see a speeding car fatally come off a hillside road.
The relevance of the saying, like much else in the film, is oblique, but on one level it reflects the inability of off-duty police chief Ingimundur (Ingvar Sigurdsson) to come to terms with the death in that car accident of his beloved wife – or, it’s implied, even weep for her – since he is still waiting for her to speak to him and explain her death. Only in the final scene, when she appears to him at her most loving and erotic (the recalled warmth of her presence affirmed by Leonard Cohen’s Memories on the soundtrack), do we at last see tears in his eyes.
Pálmason’s debut feature, Winter Brothers (2017), set in a Danish limestone mine, also pivoted around bottled-up male obsession and anger. Sigurdsson gives a towering, gritty performance, the tensed-up grief and fury in his blue-eyed stare and furrowed brow only occasionally yielding to something gentler in his relationship with his young granddaughter Salka (Ida Mekkin Hlynsdóttir, appealingly lively and spirited in her first screen appearance) – though even she can sometimes be the target of one of his tirades of cruel invective. Maria von Hausswolff’s camera, often watchfully keeping its distance, and Edmund Finnis’s crystalline score evoke the bleak, unforgiving landscape of this remote part of Iceland, ominous in its chill solitude, of which Ingimundur’s gaunt brooding figure seems to be the embodiment.
Pálmason makes extensive use of long unbroken takes and fixed-position camera, perhaps occasionally to excess. In the immediate post-credit sequence he holds for seven minutes, from the same angle and at the same distance, on the modernistic house that Ingimundur is building and then ceaselessly restructuring and modifying, as the seasons, the light and the weather changes and ponies wander around the site.
Only at the end of this, almost ten minutes into the action, do we get the first dialogue: a less than two-sided exchange between the taciturn widower and Georg, his police-employed grief counsellor. “What do you want?” asks Georg. “To build a house,” responds Ingimundur, with barely concealed scorn for the question. “What don’t you want?” “To stop building it.”
The film leaves a good many gaps for us to fill in, most notably the culmination of the episode when it seems to be heading off into standard vengeance-movie mode, as Ingimundur kidnaps Olgeir, the man with whom his wife was having an affair, holds him at gunpoint by a newly-dug grave and goads him into admitting the physical details of their love-making. We see the cop rise up with a roar of fury – then in the very next shot Olgeir is running desperately across the nocturnal landscape. How and why he escaped we’re left to surmise.
Equally unexplained are the recurrent images of security camera screens apparently following Ingimundur’s movements as he drives along the deserted roads. Where are these cameras located – at his house, at the police station? We never learn.
One of the most enigmatic camera effects comes when, driving on a high coastal road with Salka, Ingimundur’s car hits a large misshapen rock. He stops, goes back to examine the hazard, then rolls it across the road and over the edge. In a sequence of 13 linked shots we follow the rock as it jolts down the steep hillside, splashes into the sea and winds up on the seabed, as if – perhaps – mimicking the trajectory of his wife’s car when it went off the road in the opening pre-credit shot. Often as taciturn and unforthcoming as its protagonist, Pálmason’s film feels all the more evocative and eloquent for what it doesn’t explicitly tell us.