The lure of Hollywood is a strong one. Countless European filmmakers have been pulled into the fray, hoping their idiosyncratic sensibilities and visual panache would refresh the latest Hollywood franchise or ignite something different in the usual genre fare. For every Luc Besson, Bong Joon-Ho or (going further back into the 70’s and 80’s) Andrei Konchaloskiy, there are three Jean-Pierre Jeunets or Oliver Hirschbiegels. Possible language barriers and all, the experiment fails more often than it succeeds.
The latest filmmaker to toggle back and forth across the pond is Baltasar Kormakur. After crafting several Icelandic-language films beginning in the 1990s, including the very bleak but striking Jar City (2006), he came to America and reeled off three modestly successful and entertaining action thrillers. Led by big names and robust settings, Contraband (2012), 2 Guns (2013) and Everest (2015) revealed Kormakur as an adventurer not afraid to relish in the ultra-action of the 80’s while maintaining a sleek and distinctive mood. In between those three efforts, he also had time to produce an Icelandic thriller called The Deep, which he also co-wrote.
Returning to his home country now and continuing the surprises, Kormakur’s newest film called The Oath is not only an effective thriller that chills one literally and figuratively to the bone, but also stars the prolific director. Oh, and he wrote it as well. From its opening moments, The Oath feels like a foreign film with its measured tempo and carefully etched visuals of snow-laden streets and oppressive gray skies. Those film lovers who understand this sort of description will relish in its visual strategy, as if listening to a Sigur Ros video.
After establishing all that cold beauty, the film focuses on heart surgeon Finnur (Kormakur), who we soon learn is very good at what he does. Able to switch deftly from intense surgery to dealing with the property of his recently deceased father, he’s a man who expects order and chivalry.
The only blip in this ordered life comes in the form of his daughter, Anna (Hera Hilmar), whom we’re first introduced to when she comes stumbling into her grandfather’s quiet funeral looking like a goth girl stumbling home from an all night party. The usual father-daughter uproar is only magnified when Finnur meets her new boyfriend Ottar (Gisli Orn Gardarsson).
Handsome but dangerous, Finnur soon comes to the realization that Ottar is very bad for his daughter as she becomes increasingly attached to drugs and witnesses firsthand a ‘freak-out’ which ends with young Anna being carted off to the hospital on a stretcher. With that jarring episode fresh in his mind, Finnur begins a relentless quest to rid Anna of Ottar, consequences be damned.
Part of the somewhat nasty fun of The Oath is Kormakur’s Finnur. Cold, calculated and thinking three steps ahead for every action he takes, he’s not a very likable protagonist. Yet, even when the police come circling and his own wife Solveig (Margret Bjarnadottir) begin to have questions about the strange events surrounding young Anna and her husband, The Oath resembles a second tier Hitchcock thriller in the way it builds slowly and cautiously. Curious dogs growling in the corner of the frame … the imperfect operation of a young boy at Finnur’s hands … the way an off hand remark about the injuries of a shotgunned patient spark the creative drive within Finnur … all these seemingly minor actions have great importance to the eventual whole and how they come into play shows immense talent within Kormakur’s screenplay.
Ultimately, The Oath says we may not like what Finnur does, but anyone who has witnessed the residual poisoning of a loved one due to an unhealthy relationship has probably had a vicious thought cross their mind temporarily. It’s just ironic and intentional that the person here has the ability to both save and end lives.
The Oath will have a special screening at the Texas Theatre on Friday, September 8. Check The Texas Theatre for showtimes and ticket information.