Director: Eskil Vogt
Stars: Rakel Lenora Fløttum, Alva Brynsmo Ramstad,
Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim
Childless, happily single and cresting toward the big four-oh, I don’t mind admitting one of the lasting taboos of modern society; I’m not a great fan of kids. While my friends have partnered up and started reproducing – and happy I am for all of them – I have no such compulsion and, generally speaking, can’t think of anything worse. Still, even with this in mind I found the relentlessly grim depictions of child endangerment and suffering in Eskil Vogt’s The Innocents hard to contend with. I might not like kids, but I get the distinct impression Vogt actively hates them.
The Innocents (not to be confused with Jack Clayton’s classic ’60s horror) is a Norwegian supernatural drama set within the cocoon of a modern-day housing estate, one that rests on the shoulders of four inexperienced young actors. Nine year old Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) is slyly – and despicably – hostile toward her sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad), who has chronic autism and is unable to even verbalise. Anna’s condition means she is forever the centre of attention and Ida lashes out against this, pinching her sister hard when she can’t even cry out, and filling her shoes with shards of broken glass.
One day while out playing, Ida encounters Ben (Sam Ashraf), who has inexplicable powers of telekinesis. Soon they also meet Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim) who exhibits other psychic abilities. Aisha can communicate with Anna, reading and controlling her mind, and the four of them quickly develop a friendship based around testing the limits of these extraordinary gifts. Ida seems largely unphased that she remains ‘normal’ and unskilled… that is until Ben reveals himself as shockingly sociopathic, cruel and murderous.
Vogt is perhaps best known as Joachim Trier’s consistent writing partner (helping him pen all three episodes in Trier’s Oslo Trilogy, culminating in this year’s wildly successful The Worst Person in the World). It’s a connection you wouldn’t necessarily make viewing The Innocents on it’s own dubious qualities. The film tests us early on with the gruelling torture of a housecat before turning eagerly to its human subjects. Ben sees no difference in snapping branches and snapping fibulas. Filled with unarticulated rage, he vectors his pain outward, causing much of the misery that unfolds.
Vogt is tight-lipped about where this comes from. The Innocents takes place in an average-seeming working class community, but it seems disinterested in wider political commentary or societal ills. Instead, the acts of supernatural violence that the film itemises are presented as a flat, inexplicable condemnation of human nature, blithely suggesting that this craven sense of callous brutality extends to young children, while also queasily milking scenarios for their shock value. A number of scenes here are tailored so that we might enjoy kids getting very seriously hurt. The deeply unpleasant cat sequence at the top of the picture isn’t so much justified as it is the tip of an iceberg; a litmus test for how tolerant an audience might be for the gauntlet to come.
What is it all in aid of? Vogt is an adept filmmaker and his team mount a technically impressive production. We live within a glut of superpowered movies, and it’s somewhat refreshing to see the DNA of these ten-a-penny tales reconfigured into something small scale but effective. Make no mistake, The Innocents is compelling, and judiciously-used VFX benefit from Vogt’s less-is-more approach. But so much of what’s presented here amounts to harm and misery for its own sake. The film’s misanthropic treaty is made clear early on. What follows feels increasingly dour and gratuitous. Kids thrown into harm’s way for easy-won tension and shock value, and precious little else.
The young actors are great, particularly Ramstad who nails a demanding role that could very easily have been played poorly or erratically. As intimated, Vogt’s crew are talented, and particular notice ought to go to Pessi Levanto, who’s eerie score carries most of the third act. But all this talent feel squandered in a picture that is difficult to sit through with no clear reason for being beyond it’s own edgelord tendencies. And all those misty shots of upside down high-rises might’ve been more impressive if Nia DaCosta hadn’t gotten to the idea first.
I commend all departments for helping Vogt to draw together what must be close to the best possible version of what he wanted, but I’m perplexed as to why he wanted to make this at all, and what – beyond the obvious – he wishes to communicate with it. And thanks to its gruelling nature, the urge to plunder further simply doesn’t exist. I can’t picture ever submitting myself to it again.
An impressively staged awful film.