As both a musical genre and a subculture, heavy metal has always lent itself to exaggerated depictions. It’s easy to dismiss any art form that takes itself so seriously, and most of the reductive metal send-ups have been well deserved. But what’s also deserved is a more accurate, even affectionate portrayal that gets the smallest details right and comes from a place of good faith. That void has been filled at last by writer-director Ragnar Bragason’s Metalhead. Set in Iceland in the early 1990s, just as the darkest, most genuinely violent strain of metal was taking hold elsewhere in Scandinavia, the film deftly marries the essence of the music to a moving coming-of-age framework.
In a prologue set on the family farm, teenaged Baldur’s long, flowing locks get caught in heavy machinery, scalping the headbanger dead. (Though that’s a tragic and grisly end, it’s worth pointing out that, in context, it’s also totally metal.) Baldur’s adoring younger sister, Hera, sees the whole thing and is traumatized. In church for the funeral, she looks up at an image of Jesus, not understanding how He could allow something like this to happen; later, back in Baldur’s room, she rests her eyes on posters of Iron Maiden and Motörhead, silently pledging allegiance to them instead.
Bragason then moves the action forward some ten years, by which time Hera has all but isolated herself from the outside world. As is often the case with burgeoning metalheads, everything under 150 beats per minute seems helplessly remote from her brooding worldview. The unintelligible vocals and anti-establishment lyrics of her new idols offer young Hera a haven — King Diamond understands her pain even if her parents don’t. The lucky few in the shaded area of the arthouse-cinema/extreme-metal Venn diagram will cherish these details like a new SunnO))) album on 180-gram double vinyl.
Thorbjorg Helga Thorgilsdottir is commanding in the grief-stricken lead role, nailing not only the power stances and other musical affectations the character demands but, more pressingly, the permeating sorrow. Hera’s ratty band T-shirts, abrasive attitude, and needlessly loud amplifier all act as defense mechanisms meant to keep everyone at arm’s length. Chief among those she’s distancing herself from: her parents, who’ve dealt with the loss much differently than their daughter has and now feel like they’re losing her as well.
Metalhead is shot in a grainy, understated fashion apropos of its dreary setting and subject matter, like a more oppressive We Are the Best! — another Scandinavian coming-of-age story set against an abrasive musical backdrop. Tempting as it is to say that Metalhead knocks that film out of the pit like the poseur it is, really the two complement each other and would make for a gratifying double feature. Both are intelligent about the ways in which buying into a lifestyle goes hand in hand with rejecting all others, though in We Are the Best! going punk is more a conscious decision than a reaction to unbearable trauma.
On TV, Hera catches a news report charting the moral panic, not entirely unfounded, engulfing Norway in the wake of a series of church-burnings carried out by practitioners of that most grim and true form: black metal. Bragason draws a direct parallel between his heroine’s increasingly erratic behavior and that of the movement she emulates. This would seem an obvious approach — any number of books and documentaries have already cashed in on these scandals — but Metalhead avoids self-indulgence by keeping the focus on Hera, not Helvete.
Not that she holds much back in her day-to-day outbursts, but a beautifully pained song she reluctantly performs in front of her whole town makes for such a satisfying emotional climax that, for me, it’s an early contender for scene of the year. The grief in her voice and words is devastating, but the community’s understanding reaction offers even greater catharsis. Metalhead holds honorably to metal tropes, but it’s actually the departures that make the film so special; Darkthrone certainly never wrote anything this moving about the power of forgiveness.