Over the past couple of years, hipsters and pundits have been extolling the virtues of Iceland’s burgeoning music scene. And with groups such as Sigur Rós, Múm, Worm Is Green, Leaves, Singapore Sling, and, of course Björk all gaining varying amounts of acclaim around the world, that’s easy to see why. However, if Dagur Kari’s Nói is any indication, there’s an equally-thriving film scene just waiting to be discovered.
Set in a remote and permanently ice-locked Icelandic village, Nói follows the misadventures of its titular character, a disaffected and cynical 17-year-old who spends most of his days skipping school, bumming change at the local convenience store, and basically waiting for his chance to leave Iceland for someplace a bit warmer. However, it’s not too hard to sympathize with him. He lives with his grandmother, a slightly kooky old lady who wakes him up with shotgun blasts, his estranged father shifts between attempts at giving him advice and drunken karaoke sessions, and his sleepy little town doesn’t exactly offer too many prospects.
The only bright spot that emerges in Nói’s life is the bookstore owner’s daughter Iris, who has come to live with her father. Although initially creeped out by Nói, they soon start up a feverish relationship, much to the chagrin of her father. Even so, there’s still not much hope for Nói, who insists on drifting through life and sloughing off his classes, even when it’s revealed that he might be the most brilliant student in school.
Many comparisons have been made between Nói and the films of other young, up and coming directors, including Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko) and Wes Anderson (Rushmore). Of all the comparisons, the one that seems strongest is the Anderson one. Like Anderson, Kari fills his films with unique characters and quirky humor (just wait for the sausage-making scene), though it’s played much more subtly and drily than in any of Anderson’s features.
I must confess that, throughout much of the film, I was plagued with this notion that Nói was veering too close to cliche territory for its own good. All of the usual ideas were present; a disaffected young man, an inspiring young beauty who eventually sees past the cynicism, a dead-end town with no opportunities, the unexpected twist of the main character being brilliant, etc. It all sounded a bit too Good Will Hunting-esque for me. That is, up until the last 10 minutes, when the film completely subverted my expectations and went in a direction I was not expecting.
Due to that sort of language being bandied about (“act of God” and whatnot), I was expecting some mighty convenient turn of events to unfold in the final act, something that would pass for “miraculous” and “uplifting”. Obviously, I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice to say, the film takes a surprisingly and immensely tragic turn of events.
I was quite surprised at how mature this ending felt. Throughout much of the film, Nói is allowed to revel in his (understandable) rebellion. However, the final ending strips Nói away of his bravado, forcing him to confront, possibly for the first time in his short life, the emptiness of his life. It does end the film on a remarkably tragic note, but also one ambiguous enough to possibly allow for something a little brighter.
Admittedly, as much as I like the ending, I also struggle with it as well. As much as I like it, it also allows for some disturbing possibilities, which I don’t spill here. However, it’s to Kari’s credit that he doesn’t spell out everything for the viewer, but rather, asks them to make their own choice as to what exactly happens and what it means.
And even when Nói (and the film) hits this point, it’s hard not to sympathize with him. Even when he’s at his most rebellious, you get caught up in his mischeviousness. And as such, it’s not hard to sympathize with him when the film begins taking a darker, more tragic turn, even though we’ve no real reason to like the scoundrel. This is all due to Tomas Lemarquis, who does a remarkable job at portraying Nói.
During Nói, I was once again struck with the notion that all Icelandic films should give top billing to the Icelandic countryside. I’ve rarely seen films that are shaped and impacted so much by their setting as those made in Iceland, and this one is no different. Nói’s town is permanently locked in ice, it seems, and the stark white countryside makes for some haunting scenes; especially at night when the empty snow-covered streets seem to glow with an alien light. Furthermore, the town lives in the shadow of a glacier, its presence always looming in the background, adding a slightly ominous tint to the film’s events.
In an interview, Kari said that he wanted to create a universe for his film that didn’t really exist, that had a strange and eerie atmosphere. And that’s exactly the case with Nói. There is a strange otherness to the film, as if Nói’s life is permanently removed from the real world by miles of snow and ice. And this otherness makes Nói a truly surprising, engaging, and thought-provoking debut feature.