Inside the American Dream By Eero Tammi
in 29th Goteborg International Film Festival
by Eero Tammi
The Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormákur has followed the footsteps of his Nordic colleague Lars von Trier by shooting his latest film, A Little Trip To Heaven, in his homeland but setting it in America. It’s snowing like hell in a small and isolated town in Minnesota where Kormákur creates his dark and satirical portrayal of lonely and loveless people dreaming of finding a richer life. Kormákur’s central character is an insurance investigator, Holt (intriguingly played by Forest Whitaker), whose carefully calculating and emotionless job is to trying discover insurance frauds and finding every possible reason not to pay for the families of the deceased. Holt travels to Minnesota, where he finds the unhappy and complicated case of a young couple (Julia Stiles and Jeremy Renner) mixed up in a brutal murder.
When the Toronto International Film Festival showed a rough-cut of A Little Trip To Heaven, it wasn’t well received. In Göteborg, the FIPRESCI jury had no problem recognizing it as an original, intense, and atmospheric work, as well as the most professionally made film in competition. Starting with some very dark and violent imagery, it first appears like Kormákur is heading in the direction of an American genre film – a kind of neo-noir – but as the film rolls on he constantly gives us reasons to suspect something else. Meditating on American laws and morality, Kormákur comes closer to David Cronenberg and A History of Violence than the films of Lars von Trier. Cronenberg uses the western genre and other familiar film imagery to enter something deeper, to create an ontological study of the American mentality. Kormákur sinks his characters into the worlds of film-noir and American commercials.
The insurance investigator Holt, obsessed with tiny details and acting like a private detective, is able to work only rationally within an irrational and problematic system that gives no room for emotional consideration. Throughout the film we see a sentimental advertisement for Holt’s company, picturing a perfect world of caretaking. When, in the end, Holt seems to find true sympathy and even sacrifices himself for the benefit of a young woman, it’s fitting that Kormákur shows him walking and smiling inside that very same commercial. The film portrays many people adjusting to a cynical world that only sells the poorest ideas of the good life – with big money as a pretense. Even when Kormákur’s film feels like it’s filled with clichés, you can see the intelligence and sense a strange, genuine feel of Nordic melancholy that rises above the Americanization that’s entering into our minds everywhere. That’s something that you can’t say about many other Nordic films screened in Göteborg, many of which are in the English language and shot in a way that lamely imitates the Hollywood style of genre filmmaking.
A Little Trip To Heaven seems like a film about falling, about losing one’s self. It’s also a film about the hope of staying awake. Whitaker’s character seems like a sleepwalker, and Kormákur shoots the film like it’s happening inside of a dream. It’s a somehow confused dream with a logically moving story from the familiar worlds of American cinema, but seen as a Nordic experience, it’s melancholy and possesses a dark humor.