Friday, 11 September 2015

Film Review - 'Thale'

Thale is a fascinating example of the stubborn determination of independent film-makers. Made on a strict budget of only $10,000, using props made largely from salvaged junk on sets constructed in an actual basement - and, with director, Aleksander Nordaas, required to take on a variety of different roles just to ensure it actually got made. It would have been an impressive achievement even if the film, itself, had ultimately turned out to be a disappointment. Thankfully, Thale also happens to be a genuinely entertaining film.

Two long-time friends, Elvis (Erlend Nervold) and Leo (Jon Sigve Skard), work for a cleaning service that specialise in cleaning up crime scenes - a position which often requires them to deal with the aftermath of particularly violent crimes. Elvis is clearly ill-suited to the job, but just as clearly needs the money. Leo, on the other hand, is practically a veteran - perfectly capable of getting his hands dirty without the slightest trace of squeamishness.

Their latest job takes the two men far from civilisation - to a cabin in the woods where, it seems, the unnamed owner was attacked by animals. The authorities have already removed what they could find of the body - but, after what we are lead to believe was a particularly violent attack, it seems that some pieces are still missing. So, the two men are given the task of seeing what else they can recover. As they work, though, Elvis uncovers what seems to be the entrance to a hidden basement. Overcome by curiosity, Elvis heads down to explore - with Leo following reluctantly. Not sure what to expect, the two men are stunned when they discover a young woman (Siljie Reinåmo) - still alive, but seemingly locked away and forgotten. Through a series of tapes left behind by the cabin's previous owner, we learn that the woman's name is Thale - and, that she is not human. Thale, it seems, is a Hulder (or, Huldra) - a supernatural creature straight out of Norwegian folklore.

Unsure what to do with this strange woman, the two men settle in to wait for the authorities to arrive. But, as time passes, it becomes increasingly apparent that the two men may be in danger. Strange creatures are glimpsed stalking about the cabin - creatures which were likely responsible for the attack which brought them out here (and who, we soon learn, are also Hulder - despite the clear difference in appearance between them and Thale). Then there's Thale, herself - a mute woman who seems harmless enough, but who also possesses a variety of strange abilities (beginning with the fact that she is clearly much stronger than she appears).

The film's opening scene, cutting back and forth between Leo calmly mopping up a pool of blood while Elvis throws up into a bucket, establishes the subtle brand of black humour that occasionally crops up throughout the film, while also giving is the perfect introduction to the two characters. Leo is calm and unshakable in a way that's almost unnerving (seriously, his apparent lack of reaction to finding a young woman locked in a basement had me wondering if there was something wrong with him). Elvis, on the other hand, is practically Leo's exact opposite - very emotional, and easily shaken. The two play off of each other well, though - with Jon Sigve Skard and Erlend Nervold easily able to establish a genuine sense of history, and a long-term friendship, between the two through their simple interaction. Siljie Reinåmo, meanwhile, does well with what I would have to assume is a very difficult role - able to elicit sympathy for Thale while, at the same time, still maintaining the sense that she could ultimately prove to be dangerous.

The basic set-up, here, is very simple. We have two fairly ordinary men just going about their (admittedly rather unusual) job, who find themselves stumbling into something well beyond their experience - and, we share that experience with them, largely from their own perspective. What this means, in effect, is that there simply aren't going to be a lot of clearly defined answers, here - and, the tale that the film wants to tell us isn't going to be told in a necessarily straight-forward way. In many ways, the over-arching narrative of Thale is presented to us like pieces of a puzzle that we have to put together for ourselves. We are, for example, never explicitly told why Thale looks so human, while the rest of her kind are much more monstrous in appearance - for the simple reason that the one speculating on the subject doesn't really know, either. Also, when the film takes a sudden turn and introduces a potential human threat in the final act, we aren't going to be given clear details into how that all fits into what we already know. And, there are many over similar examples of this sort of thing throughout the film.

That's just the sort of film that Thale is, really. There's a story going on around Leo and Elvis, beginning with their discover of the strange woman in the basement - and, it is something much bigger, and grander in scale, the what they (and, the audience through them) are permitted to see. It's something that could have very easily become a source of frustration for the viewer - but, at least for me, it actually worked rather well to create the genuine sense of mystery that the film was clearly going for.

Thale is a slow and somewhat sombre film - with even the violence of the film's final act playing out in a slow and restrained sort of way. Despite often seeming to be labelled as a 'horror' film, there is never actually any point where Thale really tries to scare the audience. Instead, the film seems to settle for establishing, and maintaining, that important sense of genuine mystery. Admittedly, the pacing of the film is a little off, at times. There is, perhaps, too much time spent essentially watching the film's three leads waiting for something to happen - to such an extent that it even begins to undermine any sense of tension that the film has managed to build up. Also, the violent confrontations of the film's final act, by contrast, are glossed over fairly rapidly. But, the film, as a whole, holds up as a genuinely fascinating. It's a film well-served by some great performances - and, even manages to pull off some fairly impressive CGI for the more monstrous Hulder (especially impressive, when you consider the film's budget constraints).

The folk-lore surrounding Hulder may be much more familiar to the film's Norwegian audience than it is to the rest of us, but it's also not necessary knowledge to be able to enjoy Thale. While I can't quite shake the feeling that it was a mistake to market this as a 'horror' film (since it really doesn't feel like one), I was still impressed with what it actually was.

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