Two men are forced to review their previous relationship in a mysterious, perhaps supernatural drama.

A couple of nights before Christmas: Gunnar (Björn Stefánsson), a man in his late thirties, drives to an isolated cabin in the middle of the Icelandic wild to check on his former lover, Einar (Sigurður Þór Óskarsson), after having received a distressing phone call from him about a mysterious presence in the night.

Judging by the clichéd drive to the cabin, the viewer might settle in for a by-the-numbers, cabin-in-the-woods affair: Gunnar, alone in his car; the car, alone on the dark road; the thick curtain of darkness being barely pierced by the headlights—and yes, of course, there is a glimpse of a figure at the edge of the road, standing by a red jeep, only to disappear into the night. We have seen it all before, and the melodramatic, made-for-late-night-TV piano music does not help either. But, after setting our expectations low, the movie, directed by Erlingur Thoroddsen, takes us on a surprisingly intricate journey, which, though rarely frightening, is constantly uneasy.

At its start the film moves quite quickly. Before actually starting with Gunnar’s trip to Einar, we first see the two in a very short scene, on a balcony at a party shortly after their break-up. This offers summary character portraits of the needy, emotionally unstable, possibly alcoholic Einar who reaches out for salvation to the controlling, distant Gunnar, who only wants to move on.

It is telling that the writing of the characters and their relationship is so strong that the film could have completely ditched its mystery plot and would still have been a compelling drama about people dealing with their lost relationship and their place in the world after the break-up. Indeed, with just a few tonal changes, the film could have made a charming but honest, bittersweet indie comedy.

It remains unclear as to whether we are watching a ghost story, a murder mystery or a psychological breakdown…

This does, however, not say very much about the thriller element of the venture. This initially manifests itself through an intruder’s knocking on the door in the middle of the night, only to vanish when the door is opened. The constant, sudden appearances and disappearances of characters are the only hint of the supernatural in the film: Gunnar will be standing alone in the middle of a vast field, only for Einar to walk in from just off frame and then to disappear within the same shot, an action just enough at the edge of the physically possible to keep it ambiguous.

A constant stylistic and thematic sense of a perverse voyeurism, long, barely moving shots, and a landscape which is ironically claustrophobic in its vast openness and isolation, create a feeling of inescapability, which the movie often and aptly ties back to the two men’s relationship and their shared and individual pasts. With a perhaps deliberately confusing timeline, the film manages to marry depth and ambiguity. Borrowing from such sources as MEMENTO, THE OTHERS, the Icelandic EITHER WAY (remade as the American PRINCE AVALANCHE) and even THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, the piece keeps us interested and tense while also remaining unclear as to whether we are watching a ghost story, a murder mystery or a psychological breakdown.

Like a toddler running around or a drunk man dancing, the movie seems constantly on the point of falling over, and yet it never does. Well, at least until the very end, which makes a short stop at a revelatory moment which would wrap up many threads beautifully, but then decides that ambiguity is much cooler and throws at us the most random of turns.

One thought on “Rökkur/Rift”

  1. I know this is “just a film,” but it has had such a powerful and upsetting impact on me. Could you send a reply to the email address I’ve provided and tell me who you think the hitchhiker is that Gunnar is about to pick up at the end of of the film but whom we are never allowed to see clearly, even when he knocks on the car window, because the film ends very abruptly a second after he knocks on it? I think I know who it is, especially after comments the director made in an interview about the film’s final scene, but I’d like to hear your idea. I won’t say who I think it is, because I don’t want to spoil the film for people who haven’t seen it yet and who may read this review before watching the film. Thank you.

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