So here we are in the middle of August and I still think that Thale is one of the best films I’ve seen all year. I must have watched it back in February. I’ve probably watched between 130 and 150 films since.
So why has it stuck in my head? Because of the artistic choices of its director, Aleksander Nordaas, who I see is now preparing Thale 2. I hope that a bigger budget (and I hope he has a bigger budget, a man can’t sell everything he owns to finance his second film after he’s already sold everything to finance his first) – I really hope that won’t turn his head. What Nordaas does in Thale, sometimes out of budget necessity but often not, is what makes his film so distinctive, urgent, gripping.
First a bit of plot. We’re embedded with a Scandinavian clean-up team, the guys who go in after the police have found something grisly and done their work. On job number two they discover something in a shack out in the woods, something that appears to have been left behind by an old guy. What is it? We’re not sure. Though Nordaas has primed us to think that the old guy has possibly been in the kidnap and torture game and that there might be a young woman involved.
What builds out from this set of assumptions is a remarkable story of horror, fantasy and most of all gripping tension, as Nordaas leads us up one garden path after another. We learn, for example, that there is a young lady in a hidden tank full of some gunky liquid, that she has a tube right down her throat, to help her breathe, that maybe she is not the simple kidnap victim we at first thought.
It turns out she isn’t a woman at all, though she certainly has all the functioning appurtenances, she’s some sort of mythical woodland creature, a huldra, if you know your Norwegian folklore.
I’m not going to go any further than that – the way Nordaas sets up and then confounds expectation, wringing new plot turns out of a hoary cabin-in-the-woods premise, is one of the real joys of a film which consists of a third of this sort of tease and reveal, a third of sheer tension-building, a third of release.
Other joys include the really skilful use of the camera. I don’t know what digital rig this was shot on but there is no way celluloid could have wrought images so sharp, so deep of focus, so beautiful (not on this budget, anyway). Though it’s Nordaas’s eye for an image that stands out. The soundtrack is similarly spare, evocative and right – a single cello quite often, the mournful instrument, with subsonic rumbles to indicate something off in the distance, something you possibly don’t want to come any closer.
Atmospherics and storytelling craft are what this film is about. The performances are good enough but they’re immaterial. The CGI is cheapjack stuff but they also don’t matter. It is the way that Nordaas works his material, frequently showing us something and then letting us sweat it out – early on we see cassette tape wheels spinning and hear a woman’s scream, later there’s a shot of our huldra cowering under a bed while one of the clean-up guys gets down on the floor and starts humming to her. In the first of these instances we fill in the blanks (unimaginable torture), in the second we anticipate what’s about to happen (she’s going to jump him?).
Thale is not perfect – the ending takes a lurch into Hollywood excess, swaps noisy for spooky, and is out of keeping with the rest of the film. The CGI lets it down a touch too, and it starts to become, as the PR blurb somewhere called it, “this year’s Troll Hunter”. Whoever wrote that line was obviously trying to sell a subtitled movie – no easy feat – but also possibly thought that they were offering Nordaas a compliment. But however you look at it, Thale is a much, much better film than that. A talent has landed.
© Steve Morrissey 2013