An Unknown Compelling Force documents nine student hikers who, in 1959, ventured out to the Ural Mountains of Western Russia and never returned. When their bodies were later discovered, they had suffered any number of inexplicable injuries that for decades have fueled conspiracies surrounding the case involving everything from murder and government coverup to UFOs and Yeti. The specific area their bodies were found is commonly referred to as the Dyatlov Pass, named after the group leader, Igor Dyatlov, an experienced young hiker from the Ural Polytechnical Institute.
Between the evening of February 1 and the morning of February 2, Dyatlov and his eight companions had faced something unknown. This unknown force compelled them to cut their way out of their tents, run into the freezing, snow-covered terrain without shoes and coats, and suffer a series of grisly beatings, including one found with a tongue. Ever since, the event has remained one of the leading unsolved global crimes, with theories ranging from practical to otherworldly floated as a possible explanation for this ill-fated expedition. Award-winning filmmaker Liam Le Guillou admits to being obsessed with the tale and sets out to seek some sort of resolution.
An Unknown Compelling Force amasses an impressive number of experts to interview, discuss evidence, including Russian investigators, a Moscow Times journalist, friends of the hikers, a former FBI Agent, and a coroner. In addition, the director sets out into the perilous, snow-caked landscape to trace the very steps of the hikers as well as where they were ultimately found. Throughout, Le Guillou provides viewers access to diary entries and rare photos from and of the hikers, which are subtly and tastefully animated to resemble 3-D images.
“… the director sets out into the perilous, snow-caked landscape to trace the very steps of the hikers…”
The interviews provide some compelling additional evidence to what has already been reported. The movie then figuratively travels down each conspiracy trail to either discount or support it in order to reach something definitive. By heading directly to the source, the filmmaker is able to capture the frost-coated majesty of the mountains, demonstrating the draw the young hikers most certainly felt when embarking on their adventure. It is as wondrous and inviting as it is desolate and icy.
While the path to document this tale was no doubt fraught with peril, one wishes that Le Guillou would further remove himself from the proceedings, as An Unknown Compelling Force spends ample time focused on the director. He searches Google, talks to the camera indirectly, or tells us in voiceover how dangerous a journey he is about to face. It’s admirable that he undertakes the endeavor, but the story strays from its focus on the hikers in order to turn the lens on its creator.
Overall, fans of true crime will undoubtedly appreciate the lengths to which Le Guillo goes to investigate this fabled tale. They’ll also enjoy that the talking heads add substantial nuance and tension to the narrative. The filmmaker demonstrates a true cinematic eye with sweeping vistas he captures. If only he resisted the urge to inject himself so much into the story, An Unknown Compelling Force might’ve scaled to even greater heights.
"…demonstrates a true cinematic eye with sweeping vistas he captures."