Frost-bitten, windswept landscapes have provided menacing backdrops for a slew of Nordic noir in recent years, and they fill the frame again in this drama from Iceland about a gruff, ageing small-town cop.
While the Nordic noir label is apposite here — writer director Hlynur Palmason (Winter Brothers) leans on elements of crime drama to drive a narrative that’s as sparse as the film’s remote setting — it’s also slightly misleading.
Despite its genre signalling, A White, White Day is fundamentally a film about grief and the tender relationship between a man and his granddaughter.
It stars veteran actor Ingvar Sigurdsson (Everest) as Ingimundur, a bearded, square-shouldered 50-something who, when we first meet him, is renovating some remote farm buildings at the foot of a mountain range for his daughter and her family.
The film establishes this location using several identical long shots of the compound in different climatic conditions — including violent snowstorms and driving rain — making his efforts to weather-proof the structures appear like a primordial battle against the elements.
His alpha-masculine credentials established, the film then introduces us to Ingimundur’s soft belly.
We learn in a therapy session — clearly mandated by a court order, given his barely concealed contempt for the process — that he’s a recent widower on leave from his job. We glean that his wife (Sara Dogg Asgeirsdottir) died in a car crash, an accident that we see in an uninterrupted tracking shot that opens the film.
Questions begin to loom about the marriage and Ingimundur’s short temper. Was there foul play? Was their marriage in trouble? Is this the beginning of a psychological unravelling?
Palmason keeps a tight grip on the flow of information, setting a reflective, if increasingly unsettling, tone with Edmund Finnis’s ethereal string soundtrack and Maria von Hausswolff’s widescreen cinematography, full of slow creeping zooms and measured camera movements.
The film is a showcase for Sigurdsson, who won best actor at Cannes’ Critics’ Week for this hard-shell performance of slowly crumbling self-assurance. The brooding, macho role also calls for flashes of physical comedy — a pratfall down a flight of stairs, a miscued hammer blow on a fingernail — that he delivers with note-perfect timing.
Opposite him for much of the film, lighting up the screen, is Ida Mekkin Hlynsdottir as Ingimundur’s eight-year-old granddaughter Salka, a character who Palmason uses as both foil and catalyst.
Ingimundur spends a lot of time babysitting, and it’s through Salka’s eyes we see his kindness, but eventually a terrible anger, too.
In some ways, his behaviour recalls the rogue cops of 70s American action movies — the kind forced to hand in gun and badge after one misdemeanour too many, but whose obsession with one last case pushes them into vigilantism.
You don’t want to be on Ingimundur’s bad side.
His aggressive behaviour punctuates the film in sickening and darkly comic outbursts, from throwing a punch on a football field to abruptly telling his son-in-law to man up. But when he really explodes, the film diverges from more exploitative genre expectations.
It becomes clear that this film is less interested in a vigilante fantasy than it is in exploring the emotional ledger of guilt and redemption.
The title is inspired by an unattributed quote that appears at the beginning of the film, referencing the whiteout of a snowstorm, in which earth and sky are indistinguishable. It’s a metaphor about the possibility of communion between the living and the dead.
Ingimundur’s wife does indeed have something to tell him from beyond the grave, but only in the form of a box of her belongings that contains a secret.
Her husband is undone by what that secret reveals, which eventually forces him to confront his own blind spots about the kind of man he was.
It’s only in hindsight that the film’s examination of his male pride and emotional stultification starts to make sense.
The oblique, puzzle-like storytelling is part of the film’s charm, but at times it feels like you’re being led down a path blindfolded.
The final reveal is dramatic, but you wonder if you might have enjoyed it more if you’d been able to anticipate it.
This isn’t to take away from the film’s achievements, especially the complex and powerful chemistry between grandfather and granddaughter.
Its crime conventions don’t always coalesce into a whole, and there’s some slightly heavy-handed symbolism. But there’s much power in its tender portrayal of adult despair, and the hope found in responsibilities shouldered, not shirked.
A White, White Day is in cinemas from July 9.