Troubled Water (2008)
The basic plot: Jan Thomas (Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen) is released from prison after serving time for the murder of young child, which he maintains was an accident. Jan Thomas gets a job as an organist at a church and begins to start building his life over again, even forming a family of sorts with the church’s attractive priestess Anna (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) and her young son Jens (Fredrik Grøndahl). However, the still-devastated Agnes (Trine Dyrholm), the mother of the young boy Jan Thomas was convicted of killing, has located him and she wants to finally hear the truth about her son’s final moments.
Det. Abilene’s rating: 5 (out of 5)
Analysis: The late-sixties and early-seventies were perhaps the most fertile time period for American dramatic cinema, with numerous absorbing, character-driven masterpieces churned out over a relatively short span of time - 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, 1968’s Rachel, Rachel, 1969’s Midnight Cowboy, and 1976’s Taxi Driver are only a few examples of the many exceptional films that were released in this time period. Largely since the post-blockbuster years, American dramas have largely been either slickly-devised, manipulative sentiment (2004’s The Notebook, 2005’s Brokeback Mountain) or stern-faced, self-indulgent dross calculated to hit the audience over the head with the unsubtle opinions and viewpoints of the filmmakers (2002’s The Hours 2006’s Babel). All is not lost, however, as I have discovered over the last few years that there are many Foreign-made dramas released in the past decade that have managed to capture the spellbinding magic of those beloved character-driven American dramas of the late-sixties and early-seventies. Often made with a fraction of the budget of a mainstream American release, many of these Foreign-language films are not afraid to tackle difficult, non-commercial subject matter in a mature, non-flashy presentation that American films seemed to largely abandon since at least the late-seventies or early-eighties.
Case in point, the refreshingly frank and honest Norwegian-made Troubled Waters, which takes on the potentially thorny position of asking us to share the world of both the young victim’s mother and the man who possibly murdered him. The film daringly uses it’s entire first half to focus almost solely on Jan Thomas, the rebuilding of his life and his refusal to admit that the child’s death was nothing but an accident, a teenage petty crime that went horribly wrong. The reason that this particular film works so flawlessly is because director Erik Poppe and screenwriter Harald Rosenløw-Eeg don’t condone nor sympathize with Jan Thomas and his dilemma. They simply present the journeys of both Jan Thomas and Agnes in a very clinical and non-judgmental manner, not obviously attempting to sway audience opinion either way, and allowing them become enveloped in the characters’ worlds and drawing their own conclusions about what they have seen.
The film also presents the story’s series of events in a largely non-chronological fashion, which can be a major disaster for any film when this is not conducted properly. Director Poppe manages to arrange the various story shards in manner that is certainly non-linear, but is still organized into a coherent story. In fact, the various time reverses and double-backs in the film’s narrative in many ways recalls the manner in which all human beings process information and memories. When the storylines of Jan Thomas and Agnes finally do intersect, the harrowing truths that characters inevitably learn is shattering, not because it’s a narrative surprise, but because we the viewer feels as though we have shared the thought process of both characters and have made this breakthrough right along with them.
The entire cast, even the child performers, is quite good and believable in their roles, with Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen particularly excellent in the very tricky balancing act of playing a protagonist who has possibly committed a universally unforgivable crime. The film’s true acting highlight, however comes from the fantastic Trine Dyrholm, whose exceptional performance in this film really should have made enough ripples in the US to earn her an Oscar nod. Severely bruised but not yet broken, Agnes is a character who runs a risk of spinning out of control by the movie’s climax, but Dyrholm’s pitch-perfect performance keeps her grounded. I seriously cannot think of any way that Dyrholm’s performance could have been bettered, as she is just flawless and I look forward to viewing more of her film work.
Bottom Line: Made of a shoestring budget – roughly $3.6 million in US dollars – director Erik Poppe has created a harrowing-yet-rewarding character piece that will involve you from beginning to end and leave to reach your own conclusions.