Emil (Elliott Crosset Hove), the hero of Hlynur Pálmason’s Winter Brothers, works in a forbiddingly austere setting — a chalk-mining factory in a remote enclave of Denmark — and yet he moves through this rigid world with an air of elementary-age mayhem. An employee at the mine for “five to seven years” (he isn’t sure himself), Emil habitually pilfers chemicals from the company’s storage rooms to manufacture homemade booze, which he then transports to work, tucked inside his uniform, to imbibe and sell off to colleagues. (Emil’s questionable mixing methods recall the liquid feats achieved by Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell in The Master.) His approach to flirting — his efforts directed at a neighboring girl named Anna (Victoria Carmen Sonne) — involves chucking a snowball at his crush’s window and then fleeing the premises. In one especially ribald on-the-job encounter, he takes out his penis and engages in a literal pissing contest. Emil’s antics seem to be tolerated mostly owing to the presence of Johan (Simon Sears), his more stolid older brother.
Much of the tension of Winter Brothers emerges from this clash of man and milieu: a wiry troublemaker imprinting havoc on a landscape of roiling machinery and perpetual snow. Emil’s isolation grows more intense after a batch of his hooch reportedly leaves a higher-up fatally ill. During a morbidly uneasy performance review, Emil’s boss (Lars Mikkelsen) orders his henchmen to force a bottle of the tainted alcohol down Emil’s throat; the act of intimidation is conveyed by Pálmason with elegant obscurity, the camera panning away to the shadows on the wall just as the bodies start to writhe offscreen. Emil also becomes lost in a series of VHS army tutorial videos, the host of which instructs Emil in the basics of rifle usage. The sight of the rejected Emil alone (and sometimes naked) in his living room, consumed by images of war on the TV, practicing firing positions on the carpeted floor, provokes Taxi Driver–like anticipation of lone-wolf violence. But Pálmason — who comes to this, his feature debut, with a background in visual arts — opts to use Emil’s angst not for a forward-moving tale of vengeance but in service of an increasingly abstract study of environment and interiority.
Dreamlike sequences materialize with intensifying regularity. In one, Emil finds himself suddenly in army slacks, fully acting out one of the drills he’d previously only seen on television. In another, he and Anna — shot from above by director of photography Maria Von Hausswolff with an iris-shaped orb of light surrounding their bodies — lay together in the fetal position, discussing fantasies of making love all day. Pálmason complements these far-fetched visions with striking segments of documentary-adjacent observation. Scenes of the men executing their work underground, with only the bulbs on their helmets to light the rock and terrain around them, transport in a manner that has little relation to the through line of Emil’s plight. Pálmason can occasionally get bogged down in his ambiguous leanings; his impression-based approach doesn’t exactly serve well a potentially pivotal but vaguely treated secondary character like Anna (or even Johan, who, title aside, doesn’t leave much of a mark). But many moments attest to the high ceiling of Pálmason’s abilities — like the on-the-move brother-to-brother talk that transpires in the woods, the substance of the conversation (“Can’t you just be normal like everyone else?” Johan asks Emil) matching in intrigue the tracking-shot majesty of the forest’s snow-blanketed trees.
Directed by Hlynur Pálmason
Opens June 28, Museum of Modern Art
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