Erik Skjoldbjaerg is one of those acclaimed directors who still creates a buzz every time he brings something new to TIFF. The Norwegian director first came to prominence with his 1997 film, Insomnia (later remade by Christopher Nolan), and tends to revel in psychological darkness (perhaps no surprise for anyone familiar with Nordic film). This year saw Skjoldbjaerg bringing Pyromaniac to the festival.
Set in 1981, and based on true events, Pyromaniac tells the story of Dag, a young man who runs amok in his home village of Finsland by setting fires. The irony is that Dag is the son of the local fire brigade chief, and not only grew up helping his dad put out fires, but is being groomed to one day take over the role. This irony isn’t much used in a poetic way however, more as a narrative device to stave off any suspicion from the locals (including the police) that Dag may actually be the one behind the arsons. Indeed, we have full disclosure that Dag is the arsonist from the get-go. Hence it’s just a matter of when/if he’ll get caught, and to what extent he’ll create damage and hurt people. Thus the film is poised somewhere between a character study and a psychological cat-and-mouse suspense game between Dag and the local police inspector. However, a balance for the latter isn’t particularly well struck. While the police inspector does make for one of the more compelling characters, the film is decidedly not about him, and he is interspersed sporadically with his side of the narration never heavily weighted.
Hence, the film is almost by default a character study of its lead. Yet there is just one problem: Dag isn’t particularly interesting. And the film offers no real insight into why he’s is becoming an arsonist, nor does it afford him any real complexity of character. He’s essentially a quiet loner who lights fires and rarely socializes. When he does, things tend go poorly. In one scene, Dag spends time with two girls at a beach. Quickly however, a friend of theirs comes by and they hastily jump in the car, leaving poor old Dag in the water (without saying goodbye). We can certainly glean his disappointment, but the moment itself is an odd one. Is the film-maker suggesting that were Dag to have had afternoon delights then he would be a happier person and wouldn’t feel the need to be an arsonist? It seems that this is indeed one of the only points the scene could really have had, as there is so little other insight given to Dag’s head-space. Yet this is unfortunate for a couple of reasons, not least of which being the awful implication that the lack of female attention plays a part in his renewed criminality thereafter, but also because it exposes how little we (the audience) have to go on in terms of understanding him. Indeed, the only other possibility is that the scene is used merely to illustrate the fact he’s unhinged and doesn’t interact ‘normally.’ But we already know that. He’s an arsonist.
There is one angle to the film that could have afforded it some more salience; Dag’s mother starts to suspect her son. As she clearly loves her son (he still lives in the house as well), her slow realisation is painful one. But again, the film isn’t really about the mother, nor elaborates on this to any great degree. Instead, we’re stuck with Dag. And so, we predominantly watch him quietly go around and set fires, without major suspense, psychological insight, or narrative resolution. It all seems a little empty, and leaves one wondering: Why? Why did Dag want to light those fires? And perhaps more importantly: why did Skjoldbjaerg want to make this film? Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t offer any illuminating reasons as to either.