Director: Hans Petter Moland
Starring: Stellan Skarsgård, Gard B. Eidsvold, Bjørn Sundquist
The Scandinavian countries are lands that teeter on the edge of the world. I shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, that the dramas I have seen from these countries are typically powerful psychological battles brought on through isolation and the intensities of nature. Zero Kelvin is a fantastic recent example of this.
Henrik Larsen (Eidsvold) is an aspiring poet slash pornography distributer living comfortably in Oslo in the 1920s. He loves his girlfriend, Gertrude, but she doesn’t want to get married. To get some life experience, he takes a job as a fur trapper in Greenland. There he works in close quarters with scientist Holm (Sundquist) and the main fur trapper Randbæk (Skarsgård). In the remote and vicious country, it’s imperative the men get along in order to ensure their survival, but when cabin fever starts to set in, the mind games really begin.
This is a brutal, brutal film. It’s like a Jack London novel without all the laughs. The setup for the film is minimal at best; Moland wastes little time getting us to Greenland and getting all three of the men together in a small cabin in the middle of nowhere. The environment is bleak and harsh and completely unforgiving. This is the edge of the world, where any dictates of civilized society quickly fall by the wayside, and the brutality of the landscape is mirrored in the brutality with which the men treat one another.
The focus of the film is definitely the relationship between the three men and how they antagonize one another. I’m always fascinated by movies like this, movies about the limits of the human spirit, about just how far a person can be pushed, and how they will react when they push back. I was reminded at various points of Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. The relationship between Larsen and Randbæk is the primary one. Larsen, the poet, manages to get on Randbæk’s nerves almost immediately. Randbæk is a man’s man, and Larsen is soft. What’s fascinating, though, is that this antagonism doesn’t play out how you would expect. Hollywood has trained us to expect the strong man to bully the weak man until the weak man, in the film’s finale, finally rises and strikes back. Well, thankfully, this isn’t a Hollywood film. Very early on, the strong man is revealed to have a number of weaknesses, and the weak man is shown to be unexpectedly strong. Both Randbæk and Larsen fluidly move back and forth between being strong and iron-willed, then being weak and manipulated. This goes beyond simple mind games. This is like the world championships of mind chess. The two collaborate, then violently turn on one another. Randbæk is curiously nice to Larsen, then Larsen viciously swipes at him. It is impossible to work out just how the two feel about one another, even after the film ends – and I love that. I’ve mentioned before just how much I love ambiguity in film, and Zero Kelvin is too strong a film to nicely and neatly wrap up an incredibly complex relationship. Because of that, I have to say that I think this is one of the finest examples of a psychological battle I have ever seen on film.
But there are three men in the film, not two. Holm, the scientist, is also there. Just like a scientist, too, he is mostly in the background, observing the antagonism between Randbæk and Larsen. He is silent and stoic, but erupts violently with rage occasionally. Even the quiet observer cannot deal with the isolation. He is Randbæk’s friend, but will not automatically forgive him. He refuses to serve as the go-between for them. He provides a fascinating counterpoint to the warring factions around him.
Skarsgård’s performance as Randbæk is enormous. I have never seen Skarsgård like this; here, he is barely a man. He is more like a caged bear. He roars, he rumbles, he becomes suddenly violent, and then, he’ll be crying in the corner. He swears like a sailor. Frankly, I never knew that Skarsgård had it in him. This is amazing stuff. His performance drives the film. I’m shocked to discover that Skarsgård wasn’t nominated for a single acting award for this film. That’s downright burglary right there. This is his film; everyone else is just along for the ride.
This film is pretty much the limit in terms of the amount of animal cruelty I can tolerate, and even then, I had to physically cover my eyes a few times. Given that the premise of the film is about fur trappers, and the men keep sled dogs as their primary means of transportation and survival, I knew that I would have to deal with some animal stuff. If, like me, you have a hypersensitivity to animal maltreatment in film, even fictional maltreatment, then I can pass on that the animal scenes are not the focus of the film – the film is about the three men. Be warned, though, and avoid getting emotionally attached to any animal (or human, for that matter) in the film.
Although Zero Kelvin has fantastic mind games and gorgeous and frightening cinematography, this is not what I would classify as an “enjoyable” film. I know that all films are not for entertainment, and I don’t mean to say that Zero Kelvin has to be a popcorn flick, but having seen it once, I feel no compunction to ever watch it again. It’s difficult and uncomfortable. It’s good, to be sure, but it ranks very low on “rewatchability.” So ultimately, the brutality of the film caught up with me. Which is probably the point.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10