Now this was a totally absorbing film from out of nowhere, which I stumbled upon on Amazon Prime presumably because, as its a foreign film, some algorithm spotted I’d watched the subtitled apocalypse film Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula prior. and figured I might be up for another. So here we go with a Swedish character drama/end of the world thriller that may not be perfect but is really very satisfying.
Victor Danell’s The Unthinkable is a great little movie with epic pretentions, and its uneasy mix of the intimate (a dysfunctional family drama with an introverted young man, Alex (Christoffer Nordenrot) broken by regrets over his lost true love) and the macro (a doomsday thriller with exploding bridges, cars crashing like projectile weapons and helicopters falling out of the sky) creating a strange tension that in a sense hampers the film but is also quite fascinating; the friction between the two being quite jarring. Its almost like two movies edited together, separately each is perfectly fine (if each were expanded into two movies they would work quite well) but together they feel really, really weird.
Indeed its quite bizarre being lost in an intense European character drama one moment and then being quite utterly disorientated by unexplained death and carnage in the next. Gradually we learn that Sweden is being invaded by antagonists unknown and nobody, not the people in the streets, the politicians nor the military, seems to know what’s happening or why. There isn’t a declaration of hostilities or an Alien Mothership in the sky announcing planetary invasion. People get increasingly deranged (its explained only later as to why people’s behaviour gets odder) and events get more chaotic. Its strange and thrilling and the sudden shocks are genuinely disturbing.
I would also like to mention the film’s particularly fine, emotive score by Gustaf Spetz, which really does support the film very well indeed. Its emotional, melodic analogue-synth beats (reminiscent of Nils Frahm music) are very fine and its thunderous action moments are quite sweepingly operatic at times, with a nice use of organ that reminded me of Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar. This is a score that succeeds in raising its film to a higher level and Spetz, who I had never heard of before, is to be commended.
The core problem with the film though is its nominal protagonist, who is introduced in the films disarmingly low-key first half-hour which is almost a movie within a movie. Alex is a self-obsessed, emotionally damaged young man who is bullied at school and suffering a miserable family life with his parents bickering and eventually breaking up. His whole existence is fairly horrible, frankly, and the only ray of light in his life is his deepening friendship with Anna (Lisa Henni) who shares his love of music. Alex’s feelings for the pretty Anna seem to be reciprocated, except her mom gets a job far away and they leave before Alex gets the courage to reveal how he really feels, taking Anna out of his life seemingly forever. More misery for poor Alex!
The issue for the film is that after all this, Alex is clearly damaged goods; after a flash-forward of some ten years we see Alex is now a successful musician, but he behaves pretty much like a selfish jerk whose hobby is lashing out at the world. He’s older but still immature, it seems, anger always simmering under the surface. Its perfectly understandable, possibly quite realistic, but dramatically it makes him a difficult protagonist to root for, especially when throughout the film he keeps making bad decisions. Within minutes of us catching up with Alex as a musician, we learn his mother has died (more misery!) in some alleged terrorist bombing attack that actually prefigures the imminent invasion, and that he is so disenfranchised from his short-tempered father Bjorn (who has a storyline of his own through the film, having been left behind by his wife and later his son, and whose conspiracy theories eventually appear to be vindicated) that Alex refuses to advise Bjorn of his estranged wife’s passing: forgiveness not being one of Alex’s character traits.
But while this emotional soap-opera might seem a little frustrating as far as giving us someone to root for and identify with, it does kind of work. Although Alex is a strange and unusual candidate for a movie hero, there is a curious sense of reality to him, even when he makes selfish or odd decisions. Mind, the latter isn’t wholly confined to Alex- many characters make unusual decisions and often come off worse because of them. But there is an odd reality about this: too often in movies, characters act like movie characters rather than real people, with decisions and acts of courage that conveniently serve a movies plot but often don’t ring true of the foolishness of ‘real’ people. In The Unthinkable, characters make a snap decision under pressure and are dead because of it minutes later. As a viewer it frustrates a little because we sometimes ‘know’ the decisions are foolish but that doesn’t make it any less believable, because in real life people are often dumber than in movies. Its just unusual when a character makes a left turn when the movie standard is one to the right.
Considering its humble origins the film handles the epic enormity of its action/disaster sequences with much success. I won’t dwell upon its low budget because I had no inclination of this when watching it- only later did I learn that it cost something in the region of just $2 million and was a Kickstarter with its crowdfunding backers listed in the credits. This film really punches above its weight and its low budget is quite irrelevant, except that Hollywood/Netflix etc could likely learn a thing or two. The sense of scale and the excellent use of practical and CGI effects is really to be commended, a sense of reality to the ensuing nightmarish events being maintained largely throughout.
Ultimately the epic scale returns to the intimate as most of the characters are reunited, at least temporarily as arcs come full circle; I hesitate to expand on this too much as it might undermine the films twist, which is related to a central theme about relationships and memory- and how important memory is, how it can overpower us and we can be slaves to it (while it also defines us). There’s a pay-off here though that didn’t really work for me- mainly because of how much of an unlikeable git Alex tended to be: how much the finale works depends largely upon how much one can empathise with Alex’s plight, and I ultimately couldn’t, really. I was more inclined to sympathise with Anna (Lisa Henni is really good). I suppose Alex’s arc is one that succeeds more on the intellectual level than it does emotionally, certainly for me anyway, but I do think the film is to be commended for trying to land an intimate, character-driven pay-off instead of one of spectacle. Perhaps my view may change on a subsequent viewing, and the film is definitely one I’ll return to; I really enjoyed it and its definitely worth a watch on Prime.