Sunday, February 21, 2010

TROUBLED WATER (De Usynlige, 2008)

The original Norwegian title translates to something like "the invisibles" according to one IMDB reviewer, but the American title of Erik Poppe's spiritual thriller refers to both a fatal stream and the Simon & Garfunkel song which Thomas, our protagonist, plays on a church organ for a field-trip audience of schoolchildren. Thomas is an ex-con who learned to play the pipe organ for prison services. He got an early release to find work as an organist. He was convicted along with a friend for the murder of a small boy whom they snatched from its mother when she wasn't looking. Thomas has always insisted he was innocent, and his flashbacks show the kid apparently dying from a fall took while running away from the bigger boys. Thomas made matters worse, however, by putting the boy's body in the river, from which it's never been retrieved. But while he insists that he didn't murder little Isak, he clearly feels guilty about it, and he doesn't trust himself around small boys. I should add that, from what I could tell, there was nothing sexual about his or his friend's intentions toward Isak; they just wanted to mess around with him.

Thomas's friend is a little jealous of the early release and arranges a parting beat-down for the lucky bastard. Despite damaged fingers he impresses the church staff even though they'd already told him they'd hired someone else, and since the someone else can't take the job right away Thomas gets it. He's a little uncomfortable working in a church because he's no believer, but it's a living -- only there's this one boy who hangs around and seems awfully interested. He turns out to be Jens, the son of Anna, the resident priest of this Lutheran church. It's an interesting twist to have a single mother performing the mass, as if in imitation of Mary rather than Christ, but I think Poppe underdevelops the spiritual implications of Thomas's growing attraction to Anna and the eventual shoulders-and-sheets consummation of their mutual attraction. The main action of this section is Thomas's overcoming of his alienation and his mistrust of himself as he edges toward a big-brother if not paternal relationship with Jens. His new life is threatened, however, by the coincidental presence in the same town of the parents of Isak, the drowned boy. We learn that the mother has been questioning church people about him and that she got into his stuff in the organ booth at least once. When Thomas goes to confront her, the father throws him out. Nothing short of the confession of murder that Thomas refuses to make will satisfy them.

For Thomas, music rather than religion is his mode of spiritual expression, but it can't stave off all feelings of guilt and dread.

Still, Thomas and Anna's romance grows. He finally comes down from the organ booth to take communion and then enjoys a kind of carnal mass with her in naked privacy. He's also taking Jens on outings and errands, and it's on one of these that the boy disappears.

Anna offers Thomas the Body of Christ, but we know whose body he really wants.

When Poppe cuts from Thomas's frantic search for Jens to Agnes's frantic search for her son Isak in the past he hopes to have the audience hooked. He's inviting us to jump to a conclusion about what's happened to Jens, but before we find out he sends us back in time, now following Agnes through scenes we've already seen, some we've heard about regarding her, others which we've seen already but didn't know she was in. We see a woman who's rebuilt her life with two adopted kids and a career tending to kids as a schoolteacher, with a husband who takes steps to prevent her from encountering Thomas but can't control all events. Trine Dyrholm portrays a woman going mad with hate and fear, and Poppe portrays her like someone on the opposite side of a funhouse mirror from where we and Thomas had been standing. We see her through the plexiglas of car windows, and in one eerie scene in a swimming pool she seems to be arching through the air above the water rather than swimming in it.

Trine Dyrholm as Agnes

The big question I can't answer without spoiling the picture is whether you'd be right in your assumption that Agnes has kidnapped Jens. I can only say that I found the climax a little too melodramatic and a little too neat in its note of reconciliation. Agnes gets to hear what she's wanted to hear at one point, but I wonder whether it was necessary to the story for Thomas to say it or for what he says to be true. Maybe Poppe worried that Agnes would look too much like a villain otherwise, because he doesn't intend to punish her as one. In fact, it may seem unfair to some viewers for the denouement to have Agnes return to the embraces of her family while Thomas is left in suspense as to whether he'll have one someday.

Past and present on Troubled Water

For the most part, De Usynlige effectively maintains a tone of dread while we remain unsure of the feelings Thomas struggles with and we worry about what Agnes may have done. It benefits from an effective ensemble of actors, with Dyrholm standing out. Pal Sverre Valheim Hagen best conveys Thomas's distress in action scenes, when he rides his bike through the night in a state of moral panic or when he's searching for Jens. Ellen Dorrit Petersen as Anna the priest is more a romantic interest than a spiritual leader, or maybe Poppe and writer Harold Rosenlow-Eeg think her spirituality resides in her romantic potential. Because she's eclipsed by Agnes as the main female character, Anna isn't as fully developed as she should be given the inherent drama in her vocation. Then again, maybe Norway takes female priests for granted in a way many Americans can't just yet.

Troubled Water is another Film Movement DVD presentation, which I've borrowed from the Albany Public Library. I'd say any library that wants to have a respectable foreign film collection ought to subscribe to this outfit's output. I get the impression that the film hasn't been seen much in the U.S. apart from the Hamptons International Film Festival, where it won an audience award and probably earned the blurbs from Alec Baldwin and Michael Moore that adorn the box cover. While those may not be the most authoritative reviewers, I'll tell you that it's worth a look at least to keep up to date on Norwegian cinema. I liked it overall, but I can imagine other viewers liking it better than I did.

Here's an unsubtitled Norwegian trailer uploaded to YouTube by paradoxaf. I hope I've given you enough information to make it comprehensible.


Sarah from Scare Sarah said...

Loved this review. This films sounds great. It reminds me a bit of a book and then indie film called Boy A. Where the main character as a boy was sent to prison for murdering another child but always protested his inocence. He is now grown up and released with a new identity. We are not sure at first if he is lying but his new friends find out his real identity.

Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks for writing, Sarah. I googled Boy A and from what I've learned Troubled Water seems like a more melodramatic variation on the same theme, with an avenger character introduced to make things more thrilling. I'll have to track down Boy A at some point for further comparison.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Oddly, I recently saw a trailer for BOY A (in front of THE READER, in point of pointless fact) and thought it looked interesting. However, being the sucker for melodrama I am, TROUBLED WATERS sounds even more my cuppa tea. I'll have to see if my library has this one--if not, I guess I'll netflix it. Thanks for the review, Sam!