Published October 8, 2016
‘The Oath’ is something of a palette-cleanser for director and star Baltasar Kormákur, back in his own backyard after a couple years helming far-flung blockbusters. It also reflects the practical outlook of RVK Studios, his production company: following ‘Trapped’, a reverse-engineered Nordic Noir presold to most major European broadcasts markets, ‘The Oath’, written by Baltasar and ‘Trapped’ cowriter Ólafur Egill Egilsson, gives another supple thriller premise a workout across Unique Iceland locations. This new film “could easily lend itself to remake sales,” said trade publication Variety.
Baltasar has described ‘The Oath’ in interviews as “the realistic version of ‘Taken’,” as it concerns a straightforward middle-aged man with a Very Particular Set of Skills (here, Baltasar’s Finnur is a brilliant heart surgeon, and his skillset involves cutting people open and sewing them up again), willing to Go to Any Length to rescue his daughter. But there are also echoes of Baltasar’s own ‘Jar City’ (2006) in the setup, as upright Finnur, like Inspector Erlendur, is unable to keep his daughter from sliding into drug addiction. Anna (Hera Hilmar of ‘Vonarstræti’, Icelandic cinema’s current go-to good girl gone bad) is in love with her supplier Ottar (Gísli Örn Garðarsson), who comes complete with Gísli Pálmi shades, bull mastiff and underworld connections; to sever their bond, Finner is willing to meet felonies with felonies.
Baltasar, who first came to prominence as an actor, is in front of the camera for the first time since 2008’s ‘Reykjavík-Rotterdam’, and directing himself in a prominent role for the first time ever; he’s said that it wasn’t a challenge to switch between jobs, as the film’s point-of-view is so closely aligned with Finnur’s. Indeed, Finnur—warned in the opening-credits epigraph against “playing God”—sets out to be the author of the film’s actions, manipulating family members, colleagues and police and carrying out his plans with the precision of a storyboard artist. Baltasar is a director who’s always seemed more interested in the filmmaking process itself than in any recurrent set of themes; you can maybe see why he was drawn to the high-achieving protagonist.
The film, whose two-month shoot was the longest in Icelandic cinema history, is a tribute to its workaholic cowriter-director-producer-star’s professionalism and standards-raising attention to detail. As Godard turned 60s Paris into an effects-free sci-fi dystopia by shooting ‘Alphaville’ in the city’s most futuristic-looking locations, ‘The Oath’ is set entirely within the capital region’s most Scandi-modern locations, with nary a scruffy intrusion into the production design. Finnur trains for triathlons by biking through desolate snow-dusted lava fields under a steel-gray sky, while Ottar works out with all the other tribally tattooed at the World Class in Seltjarnarnes, with its floor-to-ceiling glass windows. All the clothes look straight out of the Jör winter collection; Ottar lives in a new luxury flat in Grandi and Finnur lives at Bakkaflöt 1, in Garðabær, a marvelous turf house by way of Frank Lloyd Wright designed by Högna Sigurðardóttir, Iceland’s first major female architect (and the mother of the late French-Icelandic filmmaker Sólveig Anspach, whose final film, ‘The Aquatic Effect’, just opened RIFF—see our previous issue).
The raw material of Icelandic geography and society, is in ‘The Oath’ sufficiently heavily distilled to make a credible backdrop for tightly plotted genre storytelling. (This was true of ‘Trapped’, too, though that was in world-weary, phlegmatic police-procedural vein that felt less overtly stylized.) Yet for all its high-gloss proficiency, the payoff ‘The Oath’ delivers is a bleak one, an emotionally draining summation of the film’s take on fathers and daughters, love and control.
Now playing with English subtitles at Háskólabíó every day at 18:10.