Without a doubt, Metalhead is the best film about a heavy metal-loving Icelandic farm girl that I have ever seen. Given the lack of access to Scandinavian films for Australian cinema audiences, films such as Metalhead remind us that film is a universal medium and that interesting screen stories can emerge from anywhere. Set in rural Iceland, Metalhead is a film that explores love, grief, family, identity, community and the healing power of music; heavy metal in particular. Director Ragnar Bragason has successfully melded humour into a story that is ostensibly about the lingering after effects on a family following the tragic passing of one of their own. The film opens with the death of teenager Baldur in an accident that is witnessed by his 12-year-old sister Hera. In the aftermath of Baldur’s death, Hera finds solace in the music her brother loved so much, immersing herself in his world of heavy metal. Years later, the young adult Hera is an obsessive, posters adorning every inch of wall space in her room, Judas Priest and Dio blasting from her tape deck and a wardrobe that is exclusively black.
Haunted – both literally and figuratively – by the death of Baldur, Hera struggles to get her shit together. She is seemingly desperate to move away from the stifling confines of her family home, but is unable to actually do so whenever the opportunity arises. Hera is stuck in neutral, unable to move forward and forge her own path, unwilling to sever ties with the connection to Baldur that is the farm they grew up on. The recurring theme throughout the narrative is Hera’s failed efforts to break free – either emotionally or geographically – from her memories of the tragedy. She acts out against her parents and the community as she struggles to find any meaning to her life beyond her music. In her early 20’s, Hera is seemingly on a road to nowhere despite the best efforts and patience of her family and others, including new-priest-in-town Janus (Sveinn Olafur Gunnarson) and her childhood best friend Knutur (Hannes Oli Agustsson). This is not to say we can’t sympathise with her though and it is great credit to the performance of Thora Bjorg Helga that she instils likeability in Hera that belies her behaviours.
Of course, Hera is so absorbed by her own grief that she fails to see the impact Baldur’s death has had on her parents, Karl (Ingvar Eggert Sigurdson) and Droplaug (Halldora Geirhardsdottir), who are suffering in silence, more successful at putting on a polite facade, despite being trapped in their own isolation. Karl is stoic on the surface, keeping his suffering buried deep within, focussed on his responsibilities to the family dairy operation. Droplaug meanwhile, continues to struggle in her grief and, despite the passing of 10 years, simply cannot let go of her son, refusing to make any changes to his bedroom that serves as a shrine of sorts; she is often lost in her memories and oblivious to what is happening in her immediate vicinity. It is only when both Karl and Elsa are able to re-connect with each other that they are able to move forward from the pain that has haunted them for too long.
Despite the serious nature of the themes explored in the film, there are many moments of great humour, most of which revolve around the reaction of people (and animals as well for that matter) to Hera’s extreme music and/or appearance. A trio of characters who appear towards the end of the film are hilarious and Bragason never opts for the predictable. Just when you think you know where the story is going and how it might all end, Hera finds herself on another path that may, or may not, enable her to find some kind of contentment. Janus and Knutur are great characters who perhaps show Hera more compassion than she deserves given the way she treats them both.
The film provides considerable insight for the uninitiated into the difficulties endured by those living in an environment in which the weather is a constant nemesis. Despite the aggressive nature of the music from which it gets its title, Metalhead is ultimately a temperate family drama set against the most striking of backdrops. The rugged, isolated landscape and the harsh climactic conditions of rural Iceland serve as a fitting locale for a film that threatens to topple into the darkness, but never does.