Otherworldly, isolated, and masculine, Winter Brothers is the feature debut of Icelandic director Hlynur Pálmason. Through its desolate landscape, complex male figures and beautiful aesthetic, Winter Brothers can be considered part of the new Icelandic wave of contemporary films, channelling the stylings of Rams and Heartstone.
Set in a remote Danish limestone mine, we follow Emil (Elliott Crosset Hove), who works at the mine with his older brother, Johan (Simon Sears). The worker’s lives are constrained by their work and routines, and the monotony is highlighted through repetitive shots of them either travelling to work or cleaning the machinery. Emil, young, in love, and alone, begins to create and sell alcohol on the side. The workers are eager to drink it until one of them gets sick. When his boss (Lars Mikkelsen) finds out about the accidental poisoning, he begins to taunt Emil. As quickly as the workers praised Emil they begin to despise him, and he is quickly ousted from the group as well as criticised by his brother, who tells Emil to stop being so gloomy. To add to Emil’s isolation, there’s a girl, Anne (Victoria Carmen Sonne), whom Emil spies on through her window and whose panties he steals. There’s also a rifle Emil obsesses over, watching old Army tutorial videos in an old VHS player so much that he begins to dream he is in them. Intertwined with surreal dream sequences, we watch Emil learn to operate the gun, have his brother turn against him, and see the girl he loves take interest in another worker. Eager for revenge, the film plays up the possibility of Emil turning violent.
Important here in this film is the role of the environment. The colour palette throughout the film is a mix of whites, greys and browns, and the mine looks otherworldly to the point of being an isolated wasteland. The cold wintery setting, devoid of any signs of human presence, only heightens Emil’s emotions and desperation. His few possessions, namely his alcohol-making kit and his rifle, become all he has, especially as he learns that the girl he admires is interested in the other workers. Here, the landscape isolates Emil, his face often covered from the dust of the mine, as though he can never escape it.
Much like the contemporary Icelandic films that are circulating international festivals, Winter Brothers creates much of its drama through not just the landscape but the dominant male roles. In the mine, it’s all about masculinity. When there’s a competition, you fight like men (an actual pissing contest, slang for a contest all about superiority, takes place, plus a naked male fighting scene). While this narrative may never fully reach its peak, it works more to only isolate Emil further.
The film’s cinematography is some of the most beautiful seen in recent years. In a film with an unclear narrative, much of the story is told in a blend of intense images and a harsh soundscape that reflects on the brutal industrial nature of the mine. We start and end in the dark, seeing nothing more than the glow of the miner’s helmets, and despite the either lack of lights or the flashing red lights of the mine, it is only in the mine that Emil seems safe. Above ground, stuck in the monotonous desolation, Emil seems most at threat to the masculinity that comes from the location. Much like the battlefield, Emil sees in the VHS tapes, so too does the mine show itself to be an area of conflict.
Winter Brothers will almost certainly have a successful festival run, perhaps rivalling that of the other Icelandic films that never seem to win fewer than twenty awards during their circulation, Beautiful, lonely, and male, Winter Brothers is a must-see.