You may have heard of Icelandic director Erlingur Thoroddsen thanks to his feature-length debut Child Eater (see Daniel Kurland’s review), which made the rounds last year at a handful of film festivals and hit DVD and VOD earlier this spring. Thoroddsen clearly exhibited a knack for atmosphere and resourceful storytelling given the film’s limited budget, though it was essentially a straightforward genre entry by most accounts. That being said, the director’s haunting follow-up Rift (aka Rökkur, Icelandic for “twilight”) comes as both an impressive progression and stark stylistic shift for Thoroddsen. Recently screened at Fantastic Fest 2017 in Austin, Texas, it trades traditional scares and a focus on creature design for slow-burn chills, a moody framework, and measured ambiguity. Ultimately, Rift finds Thoroddsen realizing his greater potential as a nuanced auteur, effortlessly crossing genre boundaries while maintaining a cohesive, subversive, and effectively emotional narrative experience. That it also features two exceptionally multi-dimensional gay protagonists while tackling themes of love, loss, guilt, and fear in the context of same-sex relationships is absolutely refreshing, in the name of both Icelandic horror and queer horror cinema alike.
Rift begins at the end of a relationship; Gunnar (Björn Stefánsson) has broken things off with Einar (Sigurður Þór Óskarsson) and has moved on to someone new. Einar, on the other hand, cannot quite seem to let go. Following an awkward run-in between the two at a party that ends on a rather dark note, Gunnar receives a strange call from his troubled ex that has him shaken to his core. Concerned for Einar’s safety and mental state, Gunnar heads out to Einar’s isolated family cabin to check on him. As the two contend with the aftermath of their relationship’s demise, it becomes increasingly evident to Gunnar that Einar might truly be in danger–though maybe not in the way he initially suspected.
What follows in Rift is a genre-bending journey through grief, isolation, and rumination. For those who have been through relationship woes in recent history, it will likely be a tough watch at times, fueled by icy visuals and a bleak–even foreboding–tone. This may come as no surprise, as we are following Gunnar and Einar in the throes of post-breakup melancholy, after all. Still, despite Rift‘s obviously dark underpinnings, Thoroddsen’s script beautifully interweaves moments of joy as the estranged men reminisce on better days and slowly begin to recognize the depth of their undeniable connection. It also incorporates the more chilling turns in ways that feel natural to the story and reflective of the various states of Gunnar and Einar’s relationship. Even when it’s rather creepy, Rift‘s character-driven core lends effective emotional context to these more straightforward horror elements.
The emotional duality conveyed by the poetic script–marked by the characters’ simultaneous hope for resolution in their relationship and a looming fear of tragedy on the horizon–is heightened by the director’s visual approach, which juxtaposes the chilly, rural setting against the warm and comforting safe haven of the cabin. The gorgeous Icelandic backdrop supports the story as much as it sets the scene and Thoroddsen’s and cinematographer John Wakayama Carey’s composed hands work wonders in maintaining the visual and tonal contrasts that work so well here. As the story begins to take far more ambiguous turns, Thoroddsen and Carey also succeed in conveying the nightmarish sense of what we are witnessing; shots of Einar sitting in isolation while wearing his signature red hoodie alone begin to elicit a sense of unease amidst the sprawling landscapes and abandoned structures surrounding the cabin. The eerie score from Einar Sv. Tryggvason, who also collaborated with Thoroddsen on Child Eater, only serves to heighten the film’s darker and more enigmatic sequences.
Though some of the narrative turns may grow perplexing and no doubt frustratingly ambiguous for some, the performances from Rift‘s two leads keep the story solidly anchored. Stefánsson portrays the put-together and rather paternal Gunnar with an increasingly wavering composure that mirrors the audience’s experience while watching the film. He skillfully hangs in the balance somewhere between trepidation, suspicion, and latent longing; we empathize with his initial unwillingness to give into Einar’s more obvious efforts at rekindling old feelings, but also come to understand the undeniable imprint their love has left on his life. Óskarsson’s turn as Einar is equally impressive and he elicits both a guileless vulnerability and downtrodden air of detachment that is refreshingly genuine in regard to this kind of relationship dynamic. He wholly embodies the pining, potentially unstable, but well-meaning ex-lover–the delicate kind of heartbroken individual that some of us have had to contend with or perhaps have ourselves been in life. Yet Óskarsson delivers a performance layered with complexity, ultimately creating an empathetic character that we want to see happy amidst his struggles with autonomy, desperation for solace, and deep love for, if not dependence on, Gunnar.
The lovely thing about Thoroddsen’s authentic approach to relationships in Rift–elevated by Stefánsson and Óskarsson’s undeniable on-screen chemistry–is that you don’t necessarily have to side with just one of these guys. As is the case in real life, relationships are extremely complicated and one party is rarely completely in the right or completely in the wrong; it’s all a matter of which lens you’re looking through. Rift succeeds in telling a very human love story (albeit a tragic one) because it gives due attention to the divergent perspectives on both sides of this breakup. Even in its occasionally simplistic approach, we truly know who these men are by the story’s end, and maybe see some of ourselves in one or both of them. Because of this, the journey to the film’s unsettling finale is far more of an emotional rollercoaster than might ever be expected for a horror film.
For fans of character-driven horror that is as emotional as it is disconcerting, Rift is a must-see. Thoroddsen is clearly right at home telling stories that are veritably human at their core. As these are often in short supply in the horror genre, I, for one, look forward to seeing him deliver many more like it in the years to come.