The fascination of puzzling out a compulsive fire-setter’s motivations keeps “Pyromaniac” absorbing, even if the film itself provides precious few answers to its central riddle. Inspired by actual events in 1978 rural Norway (the source novel was written by a later resident of the town in question here), this straightforward tale maintains interest without paying much of the expected attention to suspense or character insight. While that inevitably makes the results less than entirely satisfying, the film, by Erik Skjoldbjærg, is an admirably modest, non-melodramatic enterprise from the director who won international attention with “Insomnia” and “Prozac Nation.”
Nineteen-year-old Dag (Trond Nilssen) has returned from a year’s military service to again live at home with his parents, machinist/local fire chief Ingemann (Per Frisch) and cleaning woman Alma (Liv Osa). The latter pesters him to get a “real” job, but Dag is content to please his father, and himself, by volunteering on the fire brigade, whose truck and equipment are kept in their family’s barn. While it’s a gig without pay, it’s one with excitement — frequent excitement, this summer at least, as a series of suspicious fires points toward an arsonist on the loose. While only abandoned shacks and such are torched at first, it seems only a matter of time before the perp begins targeting actual residences.
Finding it unimaginable that a local could do such things, most in the area assume this is the work of some malicious outsider. Only careworn Alma notices Dag’s curious behavior, which includes unexplained drives in the middle of the night and other secretive activities. Ingemann, who’s grooming his son to take over the physically demanding post he’s no longer quite young or hale enough to handle easily, flatly refuses to take Alma’s worries seriously. But as his “problem” escalates, Dag — revealed to us as the pyro early on — seems to be deliberately tempting exposure, leaving an incriminating pile of clues in his wake that the area’s sheriff can scarcely ignore.
If his actions possibly constitute a cry for help, we nonetheless have zero idea just what pain Dag is expressing. Indeed, he seems quite a giddy, borderline-manic firestarter, relying on his cherubic good looks and deep local roots to render guilt unthinkable. Bjorn Olaf Johannessen’s screenplay teases some possible psychological causes that would explain things, hinting that our protagonist is considered “a bit strange” even by peers in this close-knit community of 800. (While never scorned outright, Dag notably appears to have no real friends.) But neither writer, director, nor Nilseen’s performance offer any more overt explanation, keeping Dag an intriguing cipher — the towheaded boy-next-door inexplicably hiding a monster within.
“Pyromaniac” is abetted by strong supporting performances and a somewhat raw, docudrama-style presentation. It might’ve been even more absorbing had the filmmakers found a way to incorporate the real-life story’s bizarre aftermath (perhaps as a framing device): Found mentally unfit for criminal trial after his 1978 arsonist rampage, the actual “Dag” eventually re-settled in his home community, to residents’ great unease.