At one point in Hlynur Pálmason’s “Winter Brothers,” protagonist Emil (Elliott Crosset Hove) performs a magic trick by mixing a few clear chemicals in a soda bottle in the hopes of impressing a young woman (Victoria Carmen Sonne). Like her, we can see all the components (which are literally transparent) and yet the result still thrills. Likewise, Pálmason’s arthouse ingredients are familiar and innocuous — long takes, minimal dialogue, surrealist flourishes, an avant-garde soundtrack — he as well accomplishes something magical with his feature-length debut. A Danish-Icelandic co-production, “Winter Brothers,” making its New York premiere at the 47th edition of New Directors/New Films, is a modest but memorable accomplishment distinguished by the confident authorial voice of its first-time director.
The narrative of “Winter Brothers” emerges out of darkness — that is, the inky abyss of a limestone mine broken up only by the harsh beams of the headlamps. Before the story’s trajectory takes shape, we are introduced to the toiling of subterranean laborers that include Emil and his older brother, Johan (Simon Sears). And while the lean, goofy younger sibling has far less presence on this worksite than the elder Johan, Emil earns status by making truly noxious moonshine produced with chemicals he’s nicked from the refinery. Emil’s side trade also gets him into trouble, when a particularly toxic batch puts one of his fellow workers into a coma. As the protagonist becomes increasingly ostracized from the community, his isolation and insecurities manifest in surreal and paranoid ways.
The inhospitable Scandinavian climes of “Winter Brothers” are likely to seem uncannily familiar to those that have lived or passed through smaller, northern communities. Pálmason renders the setting authentically with texture and color, instead of beating the audience over the head with exposition that overstates how damn cold it is (a familiar example of this cliché being last year’s decidedly clunky “Wind River.”)
The director, alongside cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff, employ 16mm film stock to highlight the unique attributes of the chosen locale. Film grain and light print damage are the first details to reach the eye; beyond that, almost every object on the set is perpetually coated in either limestone dust or precipitation. Likewise, the palette is muted and earthy throughout, with structures distressed and fabrics worn and drained of color from repeated use. Even the occasion of the main title “Vinterbrødre” is a clever, artisanal play on surfaces, with the letters scratched into an ice-covered screen.
“Winter Brothers” picks up on the dramatic, interdependent scenarios generated by its setting — namely, a dependency on alcohol resulting from idleness and isolation and the social pecking order dictated by machismo. The illicit hooch — a real-world detail — is more of a plot driver, but Pálmason does interesting things with the familiar theme of masculinity. Maybe not a direct nod to the iconic scene in the recently restored Ken Russell classic “Woman in Love,” there is a nude grappling scene between Emil and Johan in their run-down trailer. A homoerotic subtext isn’t otherwise dredged up in “Winter Brothers,” but Pálmason does pick up on the primal energy and figuration of the male body on display in Russell’s film and uses long takes to emphasize the brothers’ musculature and overall scrappiness.
In the largely interior central role of Emil, Hove isn’t called upon to do a great deal of emoting. As the aforementioned wrestling sequence suggests, it’s a great choice of physical casting, with the performer recalling the wiry bodies of the comic giants of the silent film era. There are other quirky beats, mostly spinning out of an instructional military videocassette that Emil picks up as payment for some moonshine. Even when “Winter Brothers” strikes recognizable chords — echoes of David Lynch and the Coen Brothers are tough to miss — the director’s distinct worldview keep the beats fresh and engaging, giving the impression that only Pálmason and his collaborators could have brought this story to the screen.
Like the emphatically celluloid photography — almost a gimmick at this stage in the digital era — the soundtrack is pronounced and draws a great deal of attention to itself. This is evident from the get-go with the chatter and reverberation in the opening underground passage, functioning more as ambient sound than valuable conversation. By the same token, Toke Brorson Odin’s score is dissonant and abstract, playing up the disintegrating mental state of Emil and a general unease.
Earlier this year, “Winter Brothers” snatched up the Best Picture trophy at the Bodil Awards, the Danish film industry’s equivalent of the Oscars, as well as prize for Hausswolff’s cinematography. Hlynur Pálmason clearly isn’t one to rest on his laurels. Getting its start in the International Competition at Locarno last year, “Winter Brothers” is still making the rounds on the festival circuit but the director is already gearing up for his next feature “A White, White Day” with recent stops at the co-production markets of the Rotterdam and Berlin film festivals. If the title is anything to go by, the Icelandic helmer will continue to play to his strengths and lean into his unique Scandinavian point-of-view to set his work apart in the crowded arthouse scene. [B+]