From one point of view, Spell is a movie about a man who goes on an epic, magic-inflected quest across the Icelandic tundra to heal his trauma and discover himself. From another angle, it’s about a mentally-ill guy who succumbs to his delusions after going off his medication. Which one is real? What is reality anyway, man? Spell has a lot going for it, and there were moments along the way that caught me off guard. But when all is said and done, it feels like an amalgamation of other indie movies that’s in search of something to say.
In the opening moments, we watch as a woman wakes up hungover beyond belief, staggers towards a pool, and falls in. Shortly after, we meet Benny (Barak Hardley), a bumbling cartoonist with serious OCD who has taken a flight to Iceland seemingly out of the blue. He’s a total fish out of water, unsure of what to do, unable to enjoy the tourist traps that surround him when he touches down.
“…a total fish out of water, unsure of what to do, unable to enjoy the tourist traps that surround him when he touches down.”
After he hits his threshold for stress, Benny decides to get drunk. He meets apparent manic-pixie-dream-girl Inga (Birna Rún Eiríksdóttir) at a bar, and after a too-perfect first night together, he confesses that he’s grieving over his wife. That would be Jess (Jackie Tohn), the woman from the first scene. The next morning, it becomes clear that Inga wasn’t who she said she was, though the motivations behind her deceit remain murky. The number on the note she leaves him could lead to closure and salvation…or something simpler and darker.
Spell has three basic tones that it oscillates between. There’s the dark comedy about a Brian Posehn-looking sad sack bumbling around a foreign country and getting into trouble. There’s the drama about the grieving process, laced with heartbreaking flashbacks of Benny and Jess’s life together. Lastly, there’s the mystical quest narrative, consisting of mysterious clues and some amazing shots of the Icelandic wilderness (a midpoint sequence set on a glacier is particularly breathtaking). Each of the shifting tones hits its beats well enough, and the acting is all first-rate. Hardley, in particular, has a heavy weight to carry, and he shows some real versatility and depth as a performer.
“Hardley, in particular, has a heavy weight to carry, and he shows some real versatility and depth as a performer.”
But with a genre mash-up as strange as this one, the question is always, “How does it come together?” The climax of Spell gives a good answer on an emotional level, finding a moving tonal balance in the final confrontation between Benny and…well, you’ll just have to see. But the last seconds throw everything into an annoying ambiguity that cast doubt on the film’s artistic project. What remains is something made with love and talent, but not enough vision to make a lasting impression.