Shot on desaturated Super 16mm film in a Danish limestone quarry, Winter Brothers is one of the more aesthetically idiosyncratic directorial debuts in recent memory. Icelandic visual artist turned filmmaker Hlynur Pálmason, who decamped with his crew to the film’s inhospitable setting for the duration of the production, approaches his chosen location like Michelangelo Antonioni did with that of Red Desert, transforming a place of grim labor and scant sunshine into a punctiliously designed cinematic space. Where Antonioni painted trees and grass to achieve his pallid industrial dystopia, Pálmason creates his by coating the scenery in calcite, dressing his cast in filthy faded denim jumpers, and partitioning the world into a careful visual system, with each location treated to its own rigorous compositional scheme. If nothing else, the film is a feat of formal conception and craftsmanship.
The austerity of Pálmason’s aesthetic extends to Winter Brothers’s narrative and characterization, and arguably to a fault. The slim storyline is myopically centered on the day-to-day amblings of Emil (Elliott Crosset Hove), a quarry worker who makes homemade hooch on the side, gets into petty skirmishes with fellow employees, and pines after what appears to be the only member of the fairer sex in the vicinity, Anna (Victoria Carmen Sonne). Scrawny, unattractive, and physically clumsy, Emil suggests a Nordic version of The Master’s Freddie Quell, albeit even more pitiable in his existential stagnation. Winter Brothers gets its title from the fact that Emil lives with and works alongside his more emotionally stable sibling, Johan (Simon Sears), though their tenuous, occasionally combative relationship is as hazily sketched as Emil’s romantic feelings toward Anna, a gentle, elfin figure who, if she had been given more attention within the narrative, might have nicely counterbalanced the macho stoicism on display everywhere else.
In lieu of conventional dramaturgical development, Pálmason devises a variety of methods to immerse us in Emil’s immediate experiences, with every directorial decision disparate enough from each other so as to elicit ongoing surprise. There’s the entrancing, documentary-like vibe to the sequences depicting Emil’s labor—weighty slabs of real time that wallow in the murky shadows and cacophonous sounds of the mines. Elsewhere, the freewheeling handheld camerawork of these scenes is traded for a more calculated approach to composition. The town’s drab housing units are shown mostly from the outside via frontal shots of prison-like windows, and one pivotal scene of conflict is captured entirely from this withholding perspective, with the frantic violence occurring inside offset by a languid cinematographic precision that recalls Béla Tarr. Pálmason even indulges a few showy touches: a conversation between Emil and Johan is staged as a fast-moving dolly shot through a dense meadow of birch trees, and an explosion in the quarry triggers a peculiar form of story recap as members of the ensemble pose in a series of portraits and train their gaze soulfully on the camera lens.
With the exception of this last bit, the effect of Pálmason’s eclectic strategies is to mirror Emil’s unsteady mind. When Emil’s wayward behavior is identified as a problem by upper management and he becomes a victim of bureaucratic intimidation, it starts a process of unraveling wherein he variously turns childish, resigned, paranoid, lovesick, and even psychotic. The film dramatizes these stages of torment and rejection in a modular, spontaneous fashion, and extends the sense of mental collapse into the soundtrack, where abrasive and unrelenting factory noises bleed into synthesized Tim Hecker-esque drones from composer Toke Brorson Odin until there’s no discernible difference between what emerges from inside and outside Emil’s head. Though Pálmason comes up short in guiding this disorientation toward any particularly meaningful end, Winter Brothers’s deft ability to sustain it for as a long as it does is a sure sign of a filmmaking force to watch.