Friday, April 10, 2015

Coping With Loss: Metalhead Review

Has a movie ever connected with you in a way that pierces straight through your being, implanting itself as a foundation to which you can only harbor empathy and nostalgia? A film that might mirror a place or time or event that you've lived yourself? I could probably count the films that have had such a profound impact on me on one hand: Cinema Paradiso, Days of Heaven, Le Quattro Volte, Samsara, and yes, Dazed and Confused. Every one are subtle statements on realities that are inexplicably linked to the person I currently am by allowing themselves to be identifiable tales. Director Ragnar Bragason's Metalhead can safely be added to that incredibly small list.

In 1983, twelve year old Hera is asked to fetch her older brother for a family dinner in rural Iceland. He's plowing the field of their farm, tilling soil in order to grow grains to feed their stock of dairy cows. He's listening to "Victim of Changes" on a Walkman, hits a ditch, and is tossed into the mess of tilling rotors dragged behind the tractor and left in a heap for Hera to discover. Overcome by loss and misdirected rage induced by the funeral, Hera burns her clothes and adopts his, taking into possession his Gibson Les Paul, and shelves of vintage heavy metal.

Ten years later she's playing her own Gibson, a flying V, and obsessed with thrash and classic heavy metal. Slayer and Megadeth, Motorhead and Judas Priest, Deep Purple and Lizzy Borden are all referenced, and she walks in a thrashing stupor from the family farm where she still lives, guzzling moonshine and playing guitar. She shows the face of constant turmoil, a confusion that distorts between cynicism and rage, directionless and clinging to the bygone music of her brother. Eventually, she catches a news special detailing the Norwegian church burnings happening at the time in the early 90's, a shot of Mayhem's Deathcrush album and her approach to music as well as her life take a turn.

I don't want to go more in depth in the plot outline, while there's plenty more substance than what I've already detailed. The film chronicles the growth and development of Hera primarily, but her family, as well. And it addresses so many aspects of loss that it's staggering, from the denial to the jaded acceptance of death. The deep and stigmatizing effect is portrayed brilliantly by actress Thora Bjorg Helga, who truly becomes Hera and this quest to not only get beyond instances of the past, but to forge her own future for her own sake. She's chronicled here in four distinct stages, each one unique and each one entirely sincere, and watching her emote on screen is hypnotizing to say the least.

But the film isn't just about Hera. It's also very much about her parents Karl and Droplaug, played equally as compelling by Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson and Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir respectively. Their loss is also great. compounded by a daughter whom they have no idea how to communicate or identify with. Their story tackles perceived gender roles of traditional masculinity and making do with  circumstances you seemingly can't change. They grow as much as Hera during the duration of Metalhead, and they expertly command your empathy when they're onscreen.

Even beyond family and redemption and a whole list of other themes you could argue that Metalhead broaches, its other strongest element is that of the importance of community. The town in which Metalhead takes place is small, rural (how many times can I say rural), isolated, and dependent upon the wherewithal of the residents, the actors for whom are all fantastically cast. When Hera, drunk on 'shine, steals the neighbor's tractor for a late night drive, he brings her home to sleep it off rather than call the police. When Hera's band plays their first show, it's at a community mixer, because the drive to Reykjavík is interminably long, or so it's implied. When Hera, inspired by the acts of Burzum and Hades, destroys a town landmark, the response is to bring the people together to rebuild it when she finally admits her torment.

Metalhead never lectures on the importance of people within society. It never tries to imply that people simply go through phases to be outgrown. It doesn't push the notion of redemption beyond what's realistically feasible. And, most importantly, it doesn't cop out with an ending conforming to any mass perceived notions of normalcy. What it does is embrace the concepts of personal growth and enlightenment, the ideas of accountability and contentedness, both with your place in the world and with yourself as an individual. It makes the simple statement that until you love yourself, you'll never love anything, and that's a powerful fucking thing for a movie to do these days, especially under the simple guise of a girl that loves heavy metal.

The direction of Ragnar Bragason here is impeccable. His chosen locale is perfectly suited for the dour tone of the picture. He clearly has a firm grasp on his vision and the deftness of his casting and tone are unimpeachable. No one at any point of the film fails to exude anything but sincerity and I have to say hats off to the director that can make every character a high point. Just as vital to the film is the cinematography of August Jakobsson. Capturing natural light exceptionally and framing each shot as perfectly as if he were shooting still photography. His depiction of the locations going from eerie and grey within the confines of the small town and farmland, to the imposing snowswept grandeur of the outlying mountains.

Everything about this movie is stunning. From the deceptively simple story to the actors who portray it. The direction, the photography, cinematography are all nigh perfect. The music is no exception, from the classic NWOBHM to the American thrash to the Norwegian black metal. Every song here is placed as carefully as every frame, especially the aforementioned "Victim of Changes", which may take on a whole new meaning for you after this. As for Hera's band... the track they play is astonishingly powerful, cathartic, and enthralling and begs for an album release. As a whole, the movie is perfect. I say that about very few movies these days, especially when most cinema is Hollywood obsessing over superhero boobs and brawn. This is an intimate reality, a slice of growth and change and adulthood that needs to be seen, not just by people that have an affinity for metal, but by everyone that's ever given a shit about the outcasts. Absolutely essential.

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