In terms of opening scenes, Thelma – Norwegian director’s Joachim Trier’s toe-dip into horror, albeit one burdened with footnotes – kicks things off with a doozy. A girl and her dad (Henrik Rafaelsen) are walking across a frozen lake. She keeps peering under the ice at the fishes swimming below, a slightly distressed look on her face; he doesn’t seem so carefree either, for that matter. A hunting rifle is slung across his back. Into the woods they go, deeper and deeper, until the two of them spot a deer. He steps back, cocks his weapon and lines up his shot. She stands in front of him, her eyes on the animal. Then the dad turns and, unbeknownst to her, aims the gun directly at her head. The title card comes up. What the fuck is going on here?
The next time we see this young, and apparently bullet-free woman – her name is Thelma (Eili Harboe) – she’s at college and is clearly not comfortable in her own skin. We find out that she doesn’t have any real friends; that her ultra-Christian parents still dictate her lifestyle do’s and don’ts; and that she’s prone to inexplicable seizures. The fact that a lot of birds seem to fly kamikaze-like into windows when she goes into a fit is surely a coincidence … right? A particularly bad incident attracts the attention of Anja (Kaya Wilkins), one of her fellow students. Concern leads to friendship, which leads to something like flirting. Soon, the two are going out dancing, drinking wine, trading longing glances. And then a moment of intimate, physical contact during a dance performance finds Thelma almost literally bringing the house down. There are some strong psychic powers being stirred in this young woman, with potentially destructive results. You have our attention.
To be fair, getting our attention has never been a problem for Trier, a former skateboarding champion who dropped a debut film, Reprise (2006), that, like his skate-rat street runs, combined broad-flourish tricks with impeccable technique. With his second movie, Oslo, August 31st (2011), he proved that he could use stillness, atmosphere and an attention to offhand details to go deep on the downward spiral of a suicidal man; even his English-language misstep Louder Than Bombs (2015) is blessed with an abundance of grace notes. Trier is a serious talent, one who can go big or go honed. There’s every reason to think that, given the premise, the director and his longtime screenwriter Eskil Vogt would choose the first route, whipping up everything into a Gothic/Sapphic/telekinetic return-of-the-repressed frenzy – a sort of Blue Is the Warmest Carrie.
For better or worse, Thelma never goes the full-on sound-and-fury route – though there are two stunning scenes, involving a broken window and a spontaneous combustion, respectively, that give you a taste of what an unhinged version of this psychological potboiler might be if they left the lid off. Instead, Trier keeps everything in simmer mode, with the occasional grand gesture surrounded by long stretches of fizzling surrealism and self-conscious nods to other filmmakers. (Watching that shaking, quaking auditorium scene when Anja stirs Thelma’s lust, you can tell that the Norwegian director has studied his Hitchcock – or at least studied his De Palma studying Hitchcock.)
This is horror served at arthouse-chilly temperature, the kind that uses delayed gratification and existential dread to keep you wondering when something will happen as opposed to what. It’s also a style that, without a clear purpose other than being superficially spooky, causes a sense of frustration. There is a difference between a slow-burn thriller and merely a slow one; there’s a difference between ambiguity and not having an answer, period. You can almost sense the filmmaker flipping past ideas – female empowerment, religious-upbringing aftershocks, the manifestation of rage or libidinous desires as supernatural, trauma unlocking genetic Homo superior “gifts” – before halfheartedly discarding them or running them in to dramatic dead ends. Even his heroine, played by Harboe with doe-eyed confusion and desperation, starts to feel more like a sketch of character than a young woman caught in an emotional whirlwind, or even a symbolic container for conceptual chin-stoking.
You eventually find out why Thelma’s dad trains his rifle on his child, and while the image is no less disturbing once the reasons behind it come to light, the revelation doesn’t add much to the final takeaway other than “be careful what you wish for.” Okay. There’s too much undeniably impressive filmmaking to dismiss Thelma; there’s too much uncertain storytelling to actually recommend it. Trier undoubtedly has a great horror-movie character study in him. We can’t wait to see it.