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Review: ‘A White, White Day’ delivers a superb psychological puzzle worth piecing together

Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir and Ingvar Sigurðsson in the movie "A White, White Day."
(Film Movement)

In “A White, White Day,” a gripping psychological drama from the Icelandic writer-director Hlynur Pálmason, time doesn’t heal all wounds; it’s more likely to let them fester in silence. The movie, about a rural widower who finds his grief tilting inexorably into rage, is a fascinating study in contrasts: It’s full of closely observed faces and majestically framed landscapes, and it lurches from tense revenge-thriller twists into haunting flights of abstraction.

It’s a detective story of sorts, a puzzle that you piece together alongside its dogged protagonist, but a puzzle that ultimately proves as insoluble as human nature itself.

The widower is Ingimundur (a superb Ingvar Sigurðsson), a retired police officer of handsomely grizzled mien and tough-to-read emotions. Two years have passed since his wife died in a car crash on a winding cliffside road — a tragedy filmed from a calm, quiet remove that makes it somehow feel both random and inevitable. Ingimundur regards his loss with similar resignation.

We see him reluctantly enduring court-ordered counseling sessions in which he says as little as possible. Whatever anguish and loneliness he may be feeling is sublimated in everyday routine and manual labor: He’s renovating a remotely located house for his daughter, Elín (Elma Stefanía Ágústsdóttir), and his young granddaughter, Salka (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir), with whom he is particularly close.

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The house is first glimpsed in exquisite still-frame montages that chart the passage of weeks, months and even seasons. (The gorgeous widescreen cinematography is by Maria von Hausswolff, the plaintive string score by Edmund Finnis.) Ingimundur’s work progresses slowly but steadily, and a reassuring sense of serenity and hopefulness begins to take hold. As wooden beams and panes of glass arrange themselves into a home, it is almost as though a sense of balance were being restored between human civilization and the natural world, a sense underscored by the wild horses that sometimes wander amiably through the construction site.

But nature can be deadly as well as beautiful, and much like the thick white fog that sometimes descends on this small community, it can reveal as much as it obscures. Like so many Icelandic filmmakers, Pálmason has a gift for bending his country’s craggy terrain to his own evocative purposes, turning it into a chilly extension of his characters’ psychological landscape, much as he did in his somber 2017 debut, “Winter Brothers.” “A White, White Day,” which was Iceland’s recent submission for the international feature Oscar (and which you can stream via Film Movement’s new Virtual Cinema platform), continues unnervingly in this vein.

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The title is illuminated at the outset by an uncredited quotation that says when the earth and sky become indistinguishable, “the dead can talk to us who are still living.” And so it is with Ingimundur’s unnamed wife: Dead but not forgotten, she persists powerfully in the memories of her loved ones, and in an old home video of their lovemaking that Ingimundur finds himself watching one night. Most of all, she speaks through a box of personal belongings that, once he begins sifting through them, reveal their own painful secret history.

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With barely perceptible shifts in language, expression and demeanor, Sigurðsson lays bare the unspoken emotional weight of that history, even as he shows us a man in the grip of a present-tense obsession. Although Ingimundur is no longer a cop, he still retains access to his old office, an arrangement that speaks to the town’s casual, close-knit ties. It also allows him to abuse police resources to pursue a personal grievance, the source of which appears to be a younger man, Olgeir (Hilmir Snær Guðnason), whom he begins stalking and surveilling. But Ingimundur’s yearning for retribution, and the increasingly cold-blooded steps he takes to ensure it, give rise to the movie’s most straightforward scenes. Unlike his protagonist, Pálmason has more on his mind than mere revenge.

He knows that the most isolated souls often exist within a community rather than away from it. He likes to brood and contemplate the scenery, but he also stages lengthy, loving scenes of bustling human activity, drawing our attention in turn to a child’s face, a mother’s confusion or a bizarre-looking TV show that broadcasts its own form of existential panic. Pálmason doesn’t shy away from dark comedy or overt symbolism, but he deploys it gracefully rather than bluntly, whether it’s a fleeting image of blood spreading beneath an injured fingernail or — in the most astonishing sequence — a large rock making its solitary journey over a cliff, down a grassy slope and into the water below, coming to an eternal rest on the ocean floor.

Is it a visualization of the permanence of loss, or of the human condition in freefall? Maybe both, maybe neither. To ascribe easy labels to “A White, White Day” — to call it a study of masculine rage or a portrait of a community perched at the edge of the world — is to risk bleeding it of its elemental poetry. There are many ways to read Pálmason’s movie, though he provides a particularly emphatic clue when Ingimundur tells Salka a genuinely frightening ghost story at bedtime, with a grandfatherly affection that barely disguises a streak of sadism. This is a movie that shows us how porous the boundaries are between life and death, and also between cruelty and love.

‘A White, White Day’

(Not rated)

(In Icelandic with English subtitles)

Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes

Playing: Available April 17 at Film Movement’s Virtual Cinema screening room (filmmovement.com)

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