Sunday, October 30, 2016

Heartstone (Hjartasteinn)


Director Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson

HEARTSTONE (Hjartasteinn)                  B                    
Iceland  Denmark  (129 mi)  2016  ‘Scope  d:  Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson  

A rather sprawling first-time feature film by a young Icelandic director, Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson, winner of the Q Award for Best Gay, LGBT-themed film, who previously made a series of award winning shorts, including ÁRTÚN, which won the Best Narrative short film at the Chicago Film Festival in 2014, focusing this time on the relationship of two 14-year old boys that have been friends since an early age, the more diminutive Thor (Baldur Einarsson), whose father is absent, the runt of the litter living at home with a single mother and two older sisters, and the taller Kristján (Blær Hinriksson), who is living with a physically abusive father.  No easy life for either of them, as the film provides intimate details about their lives growing up in a remote fishing village in Iceland.  Much of it spent outdoors in the rolling hills next to the sea, the boys are part of a generational hierarchy led by an older boy, Ginger (Sveinn Sigurbjörnsson), who is little more than a bully, running around with a group of enforcers where he continually picks on boys younger than him.  In an opening moment he can be seen shooting birds for the sheer pleasure of it, leaving them to rot afterwards.  This act is paralleled by another scene with the two boys hanging with a group their own age, where they are singling out a certain fish, bullrouts, calling them ugly, and then stomping them to death, creating a pervasive mood of meaningless aggression.  These seemingly tiny acts are contrasted by the largesse of the Icelandic landscape, beautifully captured by cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, as looming out the window or off in the distance is a unique mix of mountains meeting the sea, where the harshness of the land seems to mirror the temperament of the older men, who tend to be stubborn, gruff, and at times painfully cruel.  No one represents this more than Kristján’s abusive father, Sigurdur (Sveinn Ólafur Gunnarsson), who terrorizes his wife and family, where his mean streak is a sign of his masculinity, in his eyes, as nothing ever comes easy, where you have to work your fingers to the bone just to survive this heartless world.  

Thor and Kristján have it different, as they have each other’s backs and have been best friends forever, where if you ever see one of them, the other is likely to be with him, as they are an inseparable pair, spending all their time together.  Their parents don’t seem to mind, as that’s less they have to look after, as the boys can seemingly take care of themselves, always off on some adventure, heading for the hills and faraway corners of the region, idly exploring something around town, hanging out with others, chasing after farm animals, or just generally following their curiosity, where they have plenty of time to talk about anything at all.  At home, Thor is surrounded by the presence of strong women, something he can’t fully appreciate, as his older sister Hafdís (Rán Ragnarsdóttir) recites dark and melancholic poetry at morning breakfast, where the more outspoken middle sister Rakel (Jónína Þórdís Karlsdóttir) tells her to just shoot herself already and get it over with.  All three gang up on their mother Hulda (Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir) when she has designs on a man, as the general consensus is she’s better off without them, but if truth be told, they don’t get a vote.  Hulda remains young and attractive, especially for the region, where one of the neighbors, Sven (Søren Malling), has a thing for her, handing Thor a necklace to give to his mother, something he wouldn’t be caught dead doing, instead giving it to his own girlfriend Beta (Diljá Valsdóttir) as a sign of going steady, while her less attractive girlfriend Hanna (Katla Njálsdóttir) has designs on Kristján, but only because she thinks she’s supposed to, as there’s no real chemistry between them.  Nonetheless they constantly double date, have their first kiss, spend time alone, even try sex, with Beta kind of pushing the action with Thor, which he willingly follows, while Kristján, who is tall and attractive, does his best not to be impolite to Hanna.

The interest in the girls eventually changes the dynamic between both boys, especially when Kristján playfully plants a kiss on Thor’s mouth, trying to pretend that it’s meaningless, a harmless joke, but it’s clear there’s more behind it, sending both into a tailspin of avoidance, where a mysterious gulf comes between them, neither one able to verbalize what they’re thinking, where a cloud continues to silently hang over both of them.  As if to test their mettle, Sigurdur decides to take these boys on an ominous mission, hiking quite a ways before they reach the edge of a steep cliff, where one boy will be lowered by rope on a harness to collect eggs from the vertical sea stacks, that appear like high-rise apartments stacked up on top of one another in the high cliffs rising out of the sea, with thousands of swarming birds living in the cracks on the rocks, a dangerous and life-threatening mission for men at any age, but for boys, it foolishly and deliberately risks their lives, with Sigurdur asking Thor to take the trek, almost as if that’s one way to get rid of him.  While it’s spectacular imagery, anyone who’s ever witnessed one of these bird sanctuaries realizes how foolhardy this must be, but if anything, it only brings the two boys closer together afterwards, as it’s a harrowing, near-death experience.  Perhaps in shame, that he could never carry off such a risky maneuver himself, Kristján, in an impulsive moment, apparently tries to shoot himself, but miraculously survives.  After returning home from extensive hospital care in Reykjavík, his family refuses to allow Thor anywhere near their son.  There’s a price to be paid in small towns for close friendships, as people in town gossip and carry on as if they have nothing better to do, where these two boys are taunted and tormented, even shunned by those their own age, including the two girls, who refuse to speak to them.  With Kristján secluded offscreen, where Thor has to wonder what in the hell he did to deserve being exiled in his own community, the emotional anguish and social isolation is overwhelming, as there is literally nothing he can do to change people’s opinions, reminiscent of that early scene where a fish was singled out and labeled ugly before it was stomped to death.  People grow up harboring ugly thoughts about anyone or anything that’s different, where especially in small towns, it can drive some kids to suicide.  The poetic finale is filled with the turmoil of confusion and anger, yet plays out with a unique tenderness that is an essential thread throughout every friendship.  Showing great attention to detail, the film plays out in a languorous pace, which doesn’t seem to fit the more adrenaline-paced world of kids this age, yet the detached overall manner adds a timeless, near omniscient view, as if the mountains and oceans and souls of the dead are all observing from a distance. 


  1. Kristjan did not try to kill himself because he felt "in shame, that he could never carry off such a risky maneuver himself." He tried because he had such big feelings, ones he couldnt tell anyone. He feels so alone, esp even his best friend dismissing him. Its an LGBTQ storyline. Lets celebrate and honor this, not brush such a life changing event under the rug. <3

    1. I agree with what you are saying, but shame is a particularly toxic ingredient of male identity and suicidal impulses, and Thor's heroic maneuvers on the cliff left him feeling small.

      No one is trying to brush away anyone's feelings, but part of the depths of his personal anguish in feeling unloved was the horror and shame of feeling less than a man, incomplete, broken, and damaged.

      I think we may both be right here, as suicide is such a complicated issue, particularly mixed with scorned love.

      Thank you for caring enough to add your comments.