Metalhead (Málmhaus) review
Young Hera, played by Þorbjörg Helga Dýrfjörð, witnesses the accidental death of her older brother, Baldur. In response, she remakes herself in his image; she adopts his metal music, clothes, and when we see her in her 20s, she is a full-blown metalhead. Despite nearly a decade since the tragedy, the death of Baldur continues to loom over her and her family, their lives consumed by grief.
Her mother and father have internalised their grief, manifesting itself in silences and coldness to one another. Though Hera hardly talks about it either, her outlet for all that pain is through her music. While what she listens to reflects her feelings, her emotions come through what she creates as it’s the only way she can express her fears and pains. When she plays her guitar at home, the sound reverberates throughout the whole house, like the musical manifestation of the family’s collective pain and suffering, threatening to deafen them all.
While her parents attempt to blend in with the rest of the rural community, hiding their issues in public like they do in private, Hera alienates herself from everyone through small, rebellious acts. They run the gamut from dancing like she’s in a mosh pit during a slow song, to taking the neighbor’s tractor for a joyride. Her actions are neither lauded nor condemned by the narrative. They demonstrate that the difficulties of her turbulent adolescence, and show the more destructive ways she copes with her feelings. It is established that these acts have been going on for years and that is why the community’s patience has run thin with her antics, but most come off as annoying-like-a-pebble-in-your-shoe at best, and cartoonish at worst, like when she smokes in church, grinds the butt of the cigar in the aisle when asked to stop, and storms out in a pissed off flourish. At that point I was expecting a snarky one liner that would leave the congregation with their mouths open in shock.
Hera is pissed off at and depressed in the world she lives in, taking opportunities to rebel and let loose her frustration, but moments like those are too absurd to take seriously or to laugh at. When her frustration grows and she starts committing larger acts and making bigger mistakes, those actions feel like they have weight and consequence behind them instead of the tantrum-level antics before that.
It is in those moments, that the years of built up grief and anger show in her eyes, like that of a trapped animal, because that is how she feels in her small town. When she is recording music in the barn, her music spills out through the walls that are unable to contain her. She too wants to burst from the confines she lives in. Hera has dreams of moving to the city and becoming a musician. Although she waits daily at the bus stop, bags in hand, she never gets on to leave. It is difficult to grasp a definitive reason for her hesitation to walk up those steps. She hates the town, is mortified at the possibility of being trapped there for the rest of her life, or worse, becoming one of them, yet she cannot bring herself to leave it all behind.
It would have been easy to have a definitive reason why she stays. Instead, it is an amalgamation of many things: the memory of her brother, having to take care of the farm with her family, the sense that her music is not good enough, and the feeling that she will always be an outcast wherever she goes; it all ties her down. She, like her family, is unable to move on after Baldur’s death. They drag the past with them like balls and chains.
The complex framing of their issues is to be applauded, but because Hera’s childhood is never shown, the picture framed never feels whole. Brief shots of photos and even briefer encounters with people Hera grew up with are meant to fill in the gaps, but they allude to little, sometimes no more than mentions of names that are never brought up again. It makes it difficult for audience to fully understand her thoughts because so much is motivated by what happened during those lost years.
Despite missing details, the process of grieving and dealing with loss is Metalhead’s greatest triumph. It is not easy for anyone to deal with that great of a loss, to cope with the grief that has eaten away at them for years. As such, the film offers no simple solutions. Hera and her family’s struggle in learning to move on with their lives, to do more than be swallowed up by their grief is as raw and as metal as any song that Hera listens to. In the darkness though, there is light. As bleak as their outlooks may be, hope is in every joyful moment they enjoy. As few as those are, they hold the promise of a better future, of a way out of the darkness that has consumed their lives.
Want more ‘Metalhead’? Read our interview with actress Þorbjörg.
If you want to know more about this and other films playing at Bíó Paradís, read our interview with Programme Director, Ása Baldursdóttir.