Grief manifested as festering rage haunts a self-righteous man in Hlynur Palmason’s “A White White Day,” a knockout of precise tension that falls in line with the director’s previous study on distraught blue-collar men “Winter Brothers.” Palmason remains widely unknown outside art house circles, but this, his latest effort, was chosen as Iceland’s entry for the International Film Oscar last year.
Like with “Winter Brothers,” the auteur again exploits the frozen landscapes of rural Scandinavia for their melancholic atmosphere. First, a misty day gives way to a deadly highway accident, then a wide-shot time-lapse of an isolated farmhouse follows. Seasons come and go in this eerily stunning place until we meet a police officer on leave, Ingimundur (Ingvar Sigurdsson), and his pre-teen granddaughter Saika (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir). Her luminous presence has proven vital in his new reality as a widower.
Exuding outdated manliness, the kind that forces men to suffer in silence, Ingimundur detests a lack of reserved ruggedness in younger males, like his son-in-law or a rookie police officer in town. Unforgiving, especially towards himself, the notion of betraying marital trust appalls him, so when remnants from his wife’s past give him wind of a disloyal secret, his mind machinates a path to vengeful healing.
Sigurdsson (“Everest,” “Of Horses and Men”) takes a role that in a more mainstream setting would have Clint Eastwood written on it, and magisterially composes a character that demands careful consideration. Deserving of compassion but reprehensible for his prideful toxicity, Ingimundur deems therapy unnecessary opening the door to physical aggression to become an outlet for his suppressed sorrow.
The actor’s menacing stoicism begins degrading the closer Ingimundur gets to the truth. From his stance of superiority, coming to terms with the inexplicable, yet not uncommon flaws of the human condition is devastating. The dead can’t answer verbally for their mistakes, even on the whitest of snow days when the heaven and the earth blend, and for his sake feeling emasculated, the living must do so on their behalf.
To intensely complicate our judgment of this burly grandfather willing to abuse his power for a twisted version of closure, Saika receives all the softness he can muster while unraveling. Enduring a morbid bedtime story and a hard-to-watch attack, she anchors him to love and saves him from fully losing himself to the inner monster. Sigurdsson unemotional personification pays off heartbreakingly in Ingimundur’s catharsis, and makes for one of the greatest performances of any movie released in the United States in 2020 so far.
Cerebral, but never entirely unemotional in his examination of the male psyche, Palmason has finessed a narrative grammar that takes tangential turns when least expected to subtly expound on the story’s moral compass. These punctilious cutaways are equivalent to an emotional x-ray of Ingimundur that graphically grant viewers access to the turmoil inside.
A conversation on adultery between Ingimundur and his closest friend gives way to images of the accident that upended the antihero’s quotidian simplicity, as well as shots of the keepsakes of the wreckage he treasures. There’s a bizarre children’s show that reiterates filmmaker’s interest in how we understand the seeming finality of death, and the poetically brutal journey of a large rock that rolls down a cliff and into its underwater resting place.
That tangible obstacle on the road, and his effort to remove it, speak volumes in a metaphorical voice thanks to Palmason’s continued collaboration with cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff and editor Julius Krebs Damsbo.
Their visual experimentation here and in “Winter Brothers,” in terms of the relationship between imagery and meaning, is best represented in a sequence made of portraits of those in the periphery of the chaos Ingimundur’s unleashed. These tableaus feel as if we were pausing for the protagonist and the audience to take stock of all those involved and contemplate the possible consequences right before violence erupts.
In both films the broken leading men seek vindications in destruction, but before the detonation of their fury is their rationalization of their acts that gives these subdued psychological thrillers their powers. “A White White Day,” however, resonates with more relatable pathos given the tender moments that lace the cold straightforwardness of Ingimundur’s mission. Eventually, Palmason places him on the other side of the fence, no longer as the blameless victim he sees saw himself as, but the villain in another man’s story.
Through blood and tears, Ingimundur learns there’s no brute-force escape out of pain other than surrendering to its process. Time alone doesn’t mend all soul wounds.