First there is the darkness of a limestone mine, lit only by helmet flashlights and the occasional shower of flinty sparks from a pickax connecting with rock. And then there’s the comparative dazzle of the processing plant, bleached white by a settling of lime dust and snow. Somehow these conflicting images are rendered equivalently bleak and scuzzy in Hlynur Pálmason’s challenging, deeply weird and yet peculiarly compelling directorial debut, in which a tiny community of Danish workers, clustered around a factory in the middle of nowhere, feels so isolated and remote it could well be on the surface of the moon.
Just as astronauts have to be psychologically vetted in preparation for the extreme philosophical loneliness of space, out here, you have to be thoroughly grounded to survive. And most of the men, big, silent types with craggy faces, clad in denim workwear acid-washed by time and labor (and probably actual acid), are of such prosaic ordinariness that an escape into drunkenness is as much as they need to get through their hardscrabble lives. Johan (Simon Sears) is one such guy — young, hunkily good-looking and unthinking enough to stay sane despite the privations of this life. His brother Emil (Elliott Crosset Hove) is another story: he’s either too simple-minded or too imaginative for this place, and he just doesn’t fit. And when Emil’s noxious home-brewed hooch, which he makes using chemicals stolen from the plant, is implicated in the grave illness of one of his co-workers, the community takes its opportunity to ostracize him even further.
That is, loosely speaking, the story of “Winter Brothers,” but it is a film told not so much via traditional cause-and-effect plotting as through tactile, textural imagery, expressively physical performances and industrial-tinged atonal soundscapes, that meld imperceptibly into Toke Brorson Odin’s excellent score. Hove does a riveting job as Emil, making him by turns a deer-in-the-headlights naif, a quirky trickster and a potential psycho. Sometimes he’s all three at once, as in the scenes where he practices tactical rifle poses naked, accompanied by the plummy British tones of a VHS video tutorial, with a gun he’s just bartered from a neighbor (played by Hove’s gravel-voiced father, Anders Hove).
Indeed, nudity and male genitalia are recurring motifs in Pálmason’s film, from the moment when Emil and Johan engage in a literal pissing contest, to those naked practice sessions, to the film’s most fleshily visceral scene in which the brothers fight and wrestle around a room, panting and grunting and stop-starting in a way we seldom see depicted in movies — the way real fights happen. Their bout comes after Johan sleeps with Anna (Victoria Carmen Sonne), on whom Emil has a deep, fantasy-inclined crush, at least partly because she seems to be the only female in this corrosively masculine environment.
Sonne and Hove appeared together in Rasmus Heisterberg’s “In The Blood” last year, but “Winter Brothers” doesn’t quite sit within the new wave of Nordic cinema. Instead, in its creation of a rarefied, hermetically sealed environment in which the rules of reality seem to buckle around the edges, “Winter Brothers” can sometimes recall the Greek Weird Wave work of Yorgos Lanthimos. Elsewhere, Pálmason’s background in photography comes through in some striking tableaux and portrait shots (though Maria Von Hausswolff’s cinematography is exceptional throughout). And still elsewhere, especially with Hove’s expressive face caked in white suggesting a literal stoneface, there’s a silent-comedy pathos to the proceedings. One sequence, in which the clanking of the machines drowns out the dialogue and Emil potters around the plant trying unsuccessfully to sell his homebrew, plays like “Modern Times” with an industrial soundtrack and no obvious punchline.
As scattershot as these references are, there is a throughline of pure directorial intent here, to which we can cleave even when the film is at its most abstruse. The process of caulking in its narrative gaps might be frustrating for some, and there are certainly flourishes, such as Emil’s magic tricks, that don’t seem to add anything but another knot to the tangle. But while we may not always know what Pálmason means, there’s the undeniable sense that he does, and mostly, that’s enough to add up to an impressively original, auspiciously idiosyncratic debut, one that scratches away at truths about masculinity, lovelessness and isolation, that are no less true for being all but inexpressible. Instead, we have to hunt for them, like we’re mining elusive, subterranean seams of meaning, that even the brightest flashlight can only ever partially illuminate.