Set in the dark bowels of Denmark’s rural limestone mines, Winter Brothers is a deeply weird and unsettling film about the beast of isolation. With brutality as its backdrop, it centers on two siblings: the skinny, sensitive, and unstable Emil who struggles for acceptance by his fellow miners, and the normal nondescript Johan, who blames his brother for ostracizing himself from the community through his bizarre behavior. Now at the plant for five years, Emil has found only one way of buying the others’ acceptance: by selling them flasks of his special moonshine, which he brews at home with chemicals stolen from the mining plant. It’s an arrangement, however, that toxically turns against him when one of the workers suddenly falls ill, leading everyone to suspect his mixture.
Now the target of collective hostility, the already-solitary Emil is pushed over the edge. He takes measures to defend himself, binge-watching army training videos in his living room as he crouches half-naked on the floor with a hunting rifle. His snowballing derangement might have been laughable in the hands of another actor, but Elliott Crosset Hove makes it spine-chilling, his scrawny movements and strangely boyish face impishly belying deep disturbances beneath. There is a hint of Gollum in his crouched posture, his shiny eyes, and his obsessive grappling with what he calls “his dark inner self.” He captures the suppressed elemental violence of the landscape he inhabits, with the monstrous underground machinery of the mines grinding away invisibly beneath virginal blankets of snow and shimmering limestone dust.
Atmosphere is Winter Brothers’ standout element, thanks to Crosset’s performance, Maria Von Hausswolff’s cinematography, and an industrial soundtrack that’s as anxiety-inducing as Good Time’s. Plot and emotional impact, however, are where the film comes up short. The problem is that its central dramatic conflicts are never mined to their full potential. There is Emil’s precarious relationship with his brother, his run-in with his sadistic boss, his struggle for survival in a mining community out for his blood, and above all, his plunge into madness and further isolation. Story-wise, there is tremendous raw material to be harnessed, but it dissipates in the film’s overabundance of formal experimentation, which gives more attention to individual shots than to their cumulative effect. At times, Winter Brothers possesses the core-rattling dread of a mine blast, but in terms of narrative, it spends too many minutes groping in the dark.
Nevertheless, the film’s disjointed feel is melded with an unusual style and dynamism that will undoubtedly prove a calling card for first-time feature director Hlynur Pálmason. Certain sequences are unforgettably sinister, like Emil’s first day back at the mining site after his coworker falls ill, as he walks in the opposite direction of the other miners, past a wall covered with life-sized graffiti drawings of a man drinking his moonshine mixture and falling down dead. Others are unforgettably creepy, as Emil lusts after his neighbor Anna, the camera mimicking a kind of desolate peepshow as it zooms in on her window.
Then there’s the dream sequence after Emil is thrown from his boss’s window, where he’s curled up in a fetal position across from Anna, naked and caked in limestone, telling her that all he wants is what everyone wants: “to be loved and fucked.” Shot from a creepy bird’s-eye view with the two of them stranded inside a circle of light surrounded by total darkness, it’s as though we’re staring down at them in the limestone pit through the beam of a miner’s helmet. The image is utterly detached, desperate, and disturbingly distilled.
Pálmason says that he envisioned Winter Brothers as a “lack-of-love story,” so if the trailer misleadingly primes us for a Nordic thriller, it is no surprise that what we actually get is a cross between immersive documentary and deranged film-diary about the effects of extreme isolation in a Danish mine. If his feature debut seems to suffer from an emotional hollowness at its core, perhaps this is exactly the effect he wanted to achieve.