×

Film Review: ‘Winter Brothers’

An isolated Danish limestone plant provides a surreally bleached-out backdrop for a strange, exceptionally crafted 'lack-of-love' story.

Director:
Hlynur Pálmason
With:
Elliott Crosset Hove, Simon Sears, Victoria Carmen Sonne, Peter Plaugborg, Lars Mikkelsen, Anders Hove. (Danish, English dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5323760/

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Winter Brothers'

Reviewed in Locarno Film Festival (competing), Aug. 2, 2017. Running time: 93 MIN. (Original Title: "Vinterbrødre")

Production: (Denmark-Iceland) A Masterplan Pictures production, in co-production with Join Motion Pictures, in association with Icelandic Film Centre, New Danish Screen/Danish Film Institute, Nordisk Film & TV Fund. (International sales: New Europe Film Sales, Warsaw.) Producers: Julie Waltersdorph Hansen, Per Damgaard Hansen, Hlynur Pálmason.

Crew: Director, writer: Hlynur Pálmason. Camera (color, DCP): Maria Von Hausswolff. Editor: Julius Krebs Damsbo. Music: Toke Brorson Odin.

With: Elliott Crosset Hove, Simon Sears, Victoria Carmen Sonne, Peter Plaugborg, Lars Mikkelsen, Anders Hove. (Danish, English dialogue)

More Film

  • Samuel-W.-Gelfman

    Samuel Gelfman, Roger Corman Film Producer, Dies at 88

    Samuel Gelfman, a New York producer known for his work on Roger Corman’s “Caged Heat,” “Cockfighter” and “Cannonball!,” died Thursday morning at UCLA Hospital in Westwood following complications from heart and respiratory disease, his son Peter Gelfman confirmed. He was 88. Gelfman was born in Brooklyn, New York and was raised in Caldwell New Jersey [...]

  • Margot Robbie stars in ONCE UPON

    Box Office: 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' Pulls Ahead of 'Hobbs & Shaw' Overseas

    Sony’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” might not have hit No. 1 in North America, but Quentin Tarantino’s latest film is leading the way at the international box office, where it collected $53.7 million from 46 markets. That marks the best foreign opening of Tarantino’s career, coming in ahead of 2012’s “Django Unchained.” “Once [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Leads Crowded Weekend With $21 Million

    The Bean Bag Boys, the self-appointed nickname for the trio of best friends in Universal’s “Good Boys,” are conquering much more than sixth grade. They are also leading the domestic box office, exceeding expectations and collecting $21 million on opening weekend. “Good Boys,” which screened at 3,204 North American theaters, is a much-needed win for [...]

  • Amanda Awards

    ‘Out Stealing Horses’ Tops Norway’s 2019 Amanda Awards

    HAUGESUND, Norway —  Hans Petter Moland’s sweeping literary adaptation “Out Stealing Horses” put in a dominant showing at Norway’s Amanda Awards on Saturday night, placing first with a collected five awards, including best Norwegian film. Celebrating its 35th edition this year, the Norwegian industry’s top film prize helped kick off the Haugesund Film Festival and [...]

  • Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    Richard Williams, 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' Animator, Dies at 86

    Renowned animator Richard Williams, best known for his work on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” died Friday at his home in Bristol, England, Variety has confirmed. He was 86. Williams was a distinguished animator, director, producer, author and teacher whose work has garnered three Oscars and three BAFTA Awards. In addition to his groundbreaking work as [...]

  • Instinct

    Locarno Film Review: 'Instinct'

    Now that “Game of Thrones” has finally reached its conclusion, releasing its gifted international ensemble into the casting wilds, will Hollywood remember just what it has in Carice van Houten? It’s not that the statuesque Dutch thesp hasn’t been consistently employed since her startling 2006 breakout in Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” or even that she’s [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Eyes Best Original Comedy Opening of 2019

    Universal’s “Good Boys” is surpassing expectations as it heads toward an estimated $20.8 million opening weekend at the domestic box office following $8.3 million in Friday ticket sales. That’s well above earlier estimates which placed the film in the $12 million to $15 million range, marking the first R-rated comedy to open at No. 1 [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content