Review: Wisconsin Film Festival

Winter Brothers | Hlynur Pálmason | Denmark, Iceland | 2017 | 94 min

The 2018 Wisconsin Film Festival continues at AMC Madison 6 through Thursday, April 12»

An intoxicating audiovisual experience, Hlynur Pálmason’s Winter Brothers combines a variety of daringly innovative techniques to explore the depths of an unstable young man’s fractured psyche.

A potent blend of elliptical storytelling, psychological acuity, dissonant, atmospheric soundscapes, and striking, painterly compositions that frequently veer toward minimalist abstraction, Winter Brothers exemplifies the art of filmmaking in its pure, unadulterated form. Shot on 16mm film, Hlynur Pálmason’s audacious directorial debut meticulously observes the behavior of siblings Johan and Emil, whose daily lives consist of laboring in the bleak industrial wasteland of a secluded limestone mine. Winter Brothers presents a nearly apocalyptic image of this insular community that borders on science fiction.

The literal embodiment of toxic masculinity, hotheaded Emil regularly appropriates chemicals from the company supply room to produce a dubious homemade concoction that he sells to his co-workers. In his spare time, he studies instructional military videos on how to hold and shoot the rifle he has recently acquired from an older man who owes him money. When Emil’s bosses blame his hooch for the poisoning of an employee, he begins to disintegrate.

An indistinct tension gradually accumulates throughout the film as Pálmason employs a muted visual palette, stark production design, and a broad range of experimental techniques to evoke volatile impressions of reality and mood. There are unusual tonal shifts, touches of unexpected humor, and moments of tranquil beauty, such as a virtuoso tracking shot that follows Johan and Emil through snow-covered tree branches while they walk and talk in a pristine forest.

At once a compellingly surreal portrait of human alienation, an immersive sensory experience, a bold gesture in cinematic formalism, and a hellish depiction of everyday existence as a Sisyphean struggle, Winter Brothers plays like Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964) re-imagined as a Lynchian nightmare. Pálmason’s film envelops us in its mysterious, uncompromisingly cutting-edge aesthetic design, even though we may not know what to make of the story.