In a remote Icelandic village, a twelve year old Hera watches her heavy-metal loving older brother die in a gruesome tractor accident. This incident has a huge psychological impact on her young mind as well as her dairy farmer parents. During the funeral, Hera looks at Jesus Christ with scorn and storms out of the church. A rebellious seed has somehow been sown into her, as she appears to denounce God and goes on to embrace her brother's heavy metal passion.
Time passes by, and she grows up into a brooding teenager with a cold attitude, while her parents go on with their lives, participating in the village community affairs and church choir. Clearly, none of the family members have moved on or attained closure. There are still demons of the past and the horrible accident, lurking about.
Hera's mother practically dwells like a zombie and drifts off while in the kitchen or when at the table. Hera's father is somewhat indifferent as well. The traumatic episode almost leaves a permanent dent on their being. In such a scenario, Hera finds solace in heavy metal. She stays out, albeit in isolation, drinks, drives recklessly and then retires to the comfort of her little room, its walls all plastered with heavy metal posters, and goes on to smash some tunes to mosh to.
Being an ardent lover of music, especially of the metal kind, Ragnar Bragason's "Metalhead" (2013) and its eyeball-grabbing poster, that cropped up from somewhere in the icy cold regions of Iceland, instantly caught my attention. Bragason's film is primarily an examination of grief and the struggle of a family in dealing with loss. Heavy metal music and the attitude and image usually associated with it, merely serve as tools for the youngest member, Hera, to deal with it and carry on with her life, in her own way.
Music has healing powers they say, and anyone with a significant connect to music of any kind experiences this facet in some phase of their life, finding support and companionship in music. Heavy metal and its subgenres are usually associated with rebellion, grief, anger, hatred, anti-establishment, anti-religion and everything that's normally considered 'against the grain'. It is the kind of music that's anything but happy or cheerful! And that's what makes it tick and that's how the youth of society cling on to it and seek that ultimate comfort and release, rarely found elsewhere. The love for metal takes a highly personal form, and it is entirely up to the individual how he/she receives the music they listen to.
The central character Hera, at the outset, enters the metal world, purely as a means of a rebellion against God or society, or so it seems, and possibly in a hope to continue her brother's legacy. She doesn't seem to have a natural inclination for it, and therefore the very beginning of this character arc somewhat disappoints. Using her brother's death as an excuse to condemn God and turn to metal comes off as forced and unconvincing. You don't just become a metalhead overnight! It's usually an acquired taste, one that develops and matures over time when you venture into. Merely embodying the metal persona is not enough. Perhaps at that wee age, she is only aware of its rebellious image and doesn't care much about the music, the liking for which only grows later.
It doesn't help matters that the first half hour of the film is slower than the slow life where the film is set and the lead character is rather dull and uninteresting, colder than the coldest snowflake! Maybe it isn't Thora Bjorg Helga's performance that's to blame, maybe it is Bragason's portrayal of the character itself, for she shows the right acting chops at a later stage. For the most part, there's a major hindrance in making any kind of emotional connect with her. Her poseur approach to the image of metal is relatable, however, considering her age. It's surprising, however, that she defends the lyrics of some of the bands, presumably those that don't support an Anti-Christian or Satanist sentiment, in front of the priest. Why should she do that, if she has openly denounced God and religion?
The proceedings reach laughable proportions, when a rough demo Hera records in her cow shed, finds its way to some guys in a record label who wish to release it. One of the guys is wearing a Bolt Thrower T-shirt, and they seem like serious fellows in the business who know their stuff and have obviously heard more seasoned death and black metal. And yet his mate says that Hera's solo rough demo "is the most evil and brutal music he has ever heard", something that's hardly a believable statement coming from a record label guy who promotes metal.
Whether the metal music and the personality adopted by Hera is actually helping her case, or ruining her, further becomes a matter of concern. But subsequently, this also confuses us about the muddled intent of the filmmaker and the point he is trying to make about this form of music. Bragason seems to be a man who knows the music and the image associated with it, there is no question about it. So is he championing the music, or sending out a cautionary message against it?
Normalcy seems to be attained for Hera when she gives up on the long, open hair and the black tees and begins to tie her hair and dress decently, thereby, at least in appearance, giving up the metal lifestyle. The tape in her car is labelled 'Metal' but there seems to be something else playing in it. Are we to believe that the love for such music causes more harm than good? But then, this changed Hera goes back to playing music. So is she now a liberated person who can safely go back to her original taste in music? It doesn't make much sense; perhaps these inconsistencies are meant to directly reflect Hera's confusion about how she has turned out.
All said and done, ultimately, the whole heavy metal worship angle seems superficial, a decorative item on what is actually a regular tale of a family coping with a tragedy, tinged with some melodrama, that we've seen a zillion times already. Bragason brings nothing very new to the table except going a little more into detail of the central character's musical preferences. The distant, stoic protagonist, however, further affects the narrative that already feels empty, failing to induce any emotional investment on part of the viewer.
All is not lost, however. There's a decent enough story at its core, although nothing we haven't seen before. There are some beautiful shots of rural Iceland captured by August Jakobsson. There are good moments revolving particularly around the new priest in the village, who also happens to be into heavy metal at one point of time, complete with an Iron Maiden tattoo on his arm! Hera finds a friend in him, as he understands and shares her passion for the music.
One of the finer moments in the film has Hera and the priest listening to and appreciating Judas Priest's music in his car. However, the best parts of the film only come towards the end, one being the community hall performance that gains instant appreciation among the audiences once the harsh black metal is toned down to a more Icelandic, goth rock sound with clean female vocals, and second being the family moshing session to Megadeth's "Symphony of Destruction".
"Metalhead" is a film that could've been much better; a missed opportunity and a disappointment for metalhead cinephiles craving to see a great marriage of metal and cinema. One wishes there was more depth in the writing and the central character at the heart of it all wasn't as tepid. Bragason delivers a film that's a decent watch at best.