Healing and Heavy Metal

If you described Metalhead (2013; streaming on Kanopy) to me, I would one hundred percent watch it every time: an Icelandic drama involving a close-knit family alienated from each other by a tragic event, involving Icelandic Lutheran pastors (of some stripe), gorgeous scenery, the supposed conflict between the Church and heavy metal, and grief and healing. The scenery sets my kind of tone, stark but beautiful. Tragedy and its aftermath is a central theme in film, the catalyst for narrative tension and development based in the individual characters. Grief is often isolation, since no one grieves in the same way. Especially when grief comes as the result of a child’s death (in this case, a teenager), it tears families apart. What would it look like for each member of a family to be pulled in different directions, to spend years in the inertia of daily life, and to be brought back together in a (re)new(ed) configuration? That’s the question at the heart of Metalhead.

It centers on Hera (Thora Bjorg Helga), the daughter and sister who witnesses her brother Baldur’s (Óskar Logi Ágústsson) death in a farming accident. She is immediately changed by this event, and seeks to hold on to his memory by becoming a version of what he might have been. Though she feigns packing and running away, she cannot bring herself to leave her house or small town. She sits and waits as the bus goes on. She, like her mother, Droplaug (Halldóra Geirharđsdóttir), and her father, Karl (Ingvar Sigurdsson, who is in another great Icelandic family drama, A White, White Day), are paralyzed, stuck in time at the moment they knew that their son and brother was dead. But to remain stuck in a moment, even as time inexorably passes, is to die as certainly as the one you mourn.

As Hera sinks deeper into her grief and alienation, she becomes more destructive, abusing alcohol and  stealing from the home of her childhood friend. She uses flirtation and sex not as opportunities for intimacy, but for the opposite: her body becomes a shield to prevent true intimacy. She tries to seduce the new, younger, unmarried (Lutheran) priest after he demonstrates his knowledge of the heavy metal she loves, but when she is rebuffed for the second time, she takes her most extreme action. That destructiveness appears to be the final break between her and her town, her family, and her former life. Instead it is the catalyst for both Hera and her parents to break free of the ice jam that has frozen their lives in emotional stasis.

It would be easy to make the people of this town into caricatures, especially from Hera’s perspective. They could all be backwards people who will never understand anything outside of their limited experience. They could be intolerant religious people who hate anything different from themselves. The priest could be a stand-in for either conservative ignorance or liberal tolerance. But Hera’s parents have their lives unlocked again by her disappearance, and the people of the town take the opportunity to demonstrate a love and forgiveness that Hera, in her aloofness, would not have thought possible. Further, the priest is neither naive nor perfect. He even comes close to a theology of the cross, though his conversation concludes with a sort of bland, post-modern “love” of outsiders, because He was one.

Metalhead is an original take on the triangulation of family grief, and how insular it can become. But it is a hopeful story, with reconciliation turning people again outward, toward each other.