Metalhead (2013)

Movie Info

Movie Info

Ragnar Bragason
Run Time
1 hour and 40 minutes

VP Content Ratings

Star Rating
★★★★★5 out of 5

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 40 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 2; Language 4; Sex 3/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.  If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you

Psalm 139: 7-12

 Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

Matthew 11:28

Here is a film arriving on April 3 in a few theaters and on VOD, just in time for Easter. Although most of Icelandic writer/director Ragnar Bragason’s film is Good Friday in mood, the terrific final scene, along with a couple of earlier ones of forgiveness and reconciliation, is very much Easter. If you appreciate the darker, slower paced, somber Scandinavian style of film making (think Ingmar Bergman), you should appreciate this film.

The story centers on a farm family in a small Icelandic village off the beaten track. In 1983 12 year-old Hera (Dilja Valsdottir) is sent out into the field to call in her older brother Baldur for supper. Right before her eyes he falls from the tractor into the path of the thresher he had been towing. The horrified girl rides in the car with her parents, Karl (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) and Droplaug (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), the mother in the back seat holding the bloody body of her son. They arrive at the hospital too late. At the funeral service the congregation sings a somber hymn, the covered coffin displayed up front. From her front pew the girl looks up at the large painting of The Resurrected Christ, but finds no comfort there. She arises and walks out of the church, her worried father following her.

At home Hera takes out all of her clothes and burns them in the yard. She helps herself to her brother’s leather jacket, heavy metal record collection, T-shirts emblazoned with emblems of bands, and his guitar and amp. In effect, she seems to be trying to become her brother. Her parents also are locked into separate airtight compartments of grief, so there is little interchange between the emotionally paralyzed pair and her. One day she decides to leave home, so she packs a knapsack, guitar and other items and sits down on the bench at the highway bus stop. A kindly elderly man tries to start a conversation but she keeps her head turned away. The bus arrives, he gets on, but she just sits there. Quick jump ahead to the same bench, but Hera is several years older, either out of high school by now, or a drop out. She has basically the same baggage for the bus trip, but again when it stops, she does not get on.

Hera has not carried out her intentions to leave home, but her staying is due to ennui rather than to her life getting back to normal through healing. Her parents have each sunk into their own gloom, and so are not really there for her. Her father bitterly remarks that the saying that time heals all hurts “is utter b –s.” He pours out his feeling of guilt to his wife over his failure to install a cover over the tractor’ drive shaft, which might have prevented the accident.

Hera retreats into her own cocoon of heavy metal music, listening and then practicing it on her brother’s guitar. When her mother and father object to the noise, she plays in the loft of the barn. She barely attends to the milking of their cows—indeed at one point she drives them out of barn, undoing the yard gate so that they wander off to a field. She takes to drinking, one night borrowing a neighbor’s tractor for a ride. Her behavior at the slaughterhouse where she works part time is so unsocial that the female supervisor almost literally throws her out. In short, her anger-filled life is a mess.

No doubt her antics have caused her to be the talk of the long-suffering neighbors. Her only friend is Knútur (Hannes Oli Agustsson), who has carried a torch for her for a long time. For a while he pretends to like her music, and after a passionate embrace in the barn they move to the brother’s bedroom to consummate their feelings. He entertains the illusion that they might marry, but her rejection of his offer eventually squashes that.  As I wrote before, her parents are not much better off—they could be the subject of one of those columns “Can This Marriage Be Saved?”

A new priest (their church is Lutheran) comes to town, who proves to be a catalyst for the family. Pastor Gunnar is single, which causes concern among a few people. When at the church reception a woman wonders why, Droplaug jocularly replies that maybe he likes men, and her friend says that at least he is more liberal than the old priest. The new pastor’s first encounter with Hera ends in hostility when, in the midst of a worship service, he politely asks her to take her cigarette outside and then come back in. She defiantly snuffs it out on the floor and leaves. When she visits her brother’s grave the pastor walks up, assuring her that the boy is in good hands. She walks away without replying.

The pastor pays a pastoral call on Hera’s parents, their talk centering on their wayward daughter. A perceptive man, Pastor Gunnar listens to their complaints about Hera’s behavior, the father even suggesting it would be better were she to leave. After asking a few questions about Hera, he then enquires how they are faring. They reply vaguely, indicating that they did not seek counseling.

Going upstairs to talk with Hera, he looks around the room with its posters of Iron Maiden, Arrowhead, and other heavy metal bands. She is distant and hostile, telling him he could not possibly understand her and her music. When he reveals that he too has been a heavy metal fan from the days of his teenaged years, she smiles for the first time in the film.  He talks knowledgably about various bands, but she does not believe him—after all, anyone could read up on the subject. The pastor does something that puzzles her at first—he takes off his clergy collar and unbuttons his shirt, pulling it off at the shoulder just far enough to reveal that during his teen years he had a tattoo of his favorite band imprinted on his upper arm. (I have to confess that I was afraid for a moment that the parents might look in, thus sending the story off in a very different direction!)

Hera’s demeanor immediately changes, now accepting his profession that he can understand her feeling of being excluded by the village. He says, “Jesus wasn’t afraid to sit with the outcasts, he was an outsider himself. That’s the reason they nailed him to the cross.” In a more conventional film, certainly in one of the old Billy Graham movies, this would have been the climax, with Hera and her family repenting and returning to the fold of the church. Cue in “The Hallelujah Chorus.” However, the film would have been just half as long as it is. Good Friday is not over yet for Hera or her parents.

There follows a series of painful events–Hera’s mistaken feelings about the clergyman’s pastoral care for her that she and he might enter into a romantic relationship. Her heated exchanges with her parents over her loud music and her behavior, leading her one time to appear at the supper table with her face all painted up like a member of Kiss. One of her musical practice sessions consists of her screaming at the top of her lungs into her mike. Her sexual encounter with her only friend Knútur (Hannes Óli Ágústsson) brings no comfort, nor her temporarily living with him and his father when she leaves home later.

Hera is hurt and angry over the pastor’s startled second rejection of her attempt to kiss him, her anger so strong that she imitates what a group of metalheads had done in Norway—she sets fire to the church, later fleeing to a mountain shelter for hikers. Her parents also have not healed, hurt continually by the behavior of their only remaining child. When Karl suggests that they clean out their son’s room, Droplaug resists, unable to let go of their son or her grief.

There is a dawning of Easter in the scene in which at a meeting of church members they tell Hera and her parents that they will not press charges against her, and instead call the fire an accident. The parents and she say that they will join in helping pay for the building’s replacement. The wonderful sequence in which Hera, Karl, and Droplaug hammer nails and carry lumber along with the pastor and other members is a joyful one. Everyone pitches in, even a little boy sawing at a board. As they raise up the framework of the building the effect is almost as inspiring as the Amish barn-raising segment in Peter Weir’s Witness.

As darkness puts an end to the work session Karl and Droplaug walk away affectionately holding hands, Karl saying to Hera as they pass her, “Call me later, darling.” (For a while she has been living with Knútur and his father.)

During this period Hera receives a telephone call informing her that three “pilgrims” have arrived in town seeking her. Much earlier she had recorded some of the music she had written, her way of channeling her anger and frustration. Stuffing into a large envelope several cassettes marked “Demo,” she had sent them off, presumably to a record company in Norway. The three “pilgrims” had heard her songs and were so taken with them that they had packed up their own instruments and crossed the ocean by boat to Iceland.

The three “pilgrims” and Hera form a band with her as the lead, practicing in the family barn. “The “pilgrims” have become “disciples.” The cows are no longer the “contented cows” featured in the old ads for Pet Milk. Nor at first are the villagers who pack the hall for the group’s first concert. The group starts out full blast, with the adults sitting at their tables calling out to turn down the sound. The band plays on for just a moment longer until Hera stops. We see Pastor Gunnar in the audience smiling while giving her a nod of approval. She and her musicians take up another, quieter song at a much more acceptable level. If you listen closely to the words, you will find that they become a sharing of her feelings of pain. Note also how she is now connecting with the audience.

Easter for the family arrives full tilt in two scenes, both of them in the deceased Baldur’s bedroom. The first, taking place before the concert, involves just Karl and Droplaug whose actions underline their words. The second I would love to describe in detail, it is so wonderful, but I will hold back so that you can discover it for yourself. I’ll deal more with it in the set of questions that will accompany the review in the April issue of Visual Parables. I’ll just say that it immediately brought to my mind two films I dearly love, as well as the canine theologian Snoopy in Charles Shultz’s delightful Peanuts cartoon strip. The movies are Zorba the Greek and Dancing at Lughnasa. If you have not yet seen these two life-affirming, in spite of tragedy, films, then I suspect you will want to after watching Metalhead.

Clergy and church so often have been used by Hollywood as symbolic of hypocrisy and life-denial that I love it when a filmmaker depicts them in a positive light. Director/writer Ragnar Bragason’s view of them is very similar to that of Craig Gillespie’s in Lars and the Real Girl. The pastor and church ladies in the latter are much warmer in their embracing of the delusional Lars, but hey, Bragason’s church is in Iceland, populated by Scandinavians! These also are folk imbued with a faith that reaches out to and welcomes back the wandering sheep.

Church groups will find this a ready-made film for discussing grief, the letting go of it, and the church as a community of caring people. Also the role that music can play in our lives is an important theme: as Judas Priest sing in the opening lines of “One For the Road”:

“Where would you be without music?

You would be nowhere at all…”

However, I must give you fair warning that the brief sex-scene in the barn is what gives the film its deserved R rating, but for those who can take such in stride, this will be one of the best films of the year for discussion and spiritual enrichment.

During this time of writing I am also reading Michael G. Long’s excellent new book Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers, which I commend to you for exploring Hera’s anger and inappropriate ways of dealing with her grief. The insightful chapter “It’s Okay to be Angry” explores the psychological concept that Fred Rogers used throughout his series, expressed well in his statement, “It’s okay to be angry, but it’s not okay to hurt ourselves or others.” Mr. Rogers studied under Dr. Margaret McFarland of the Arsenal Family Children’s Center (co-founded with her by Dr. Benjamin Spock and Dr. Erik Erikson), whose advice he took to heart, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and whatever is mentionable is manageable.” Thus Fred’s continual teaching that children must talk about their mad feelings, the lack of which Talking about them) is the problem with both Hera and her father and mother. (Note that Pastor Gunnar invites parents and later Hera to talk about their feelings concerning Baldur’s untimely death.) Too bad they either did not watch Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, or it was not aired in Iceland. Director/writer Ragnar Bragason’s film probes the lack in such insightful and entertaining ways that I cannot recommend it too highly.

The review with a set of 20 discussion questions is in the April Visual Parables.

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