Baltasar Kormákur’s “A Little Trip to Heaven” opens in an insurance company’s office, where a widow is bullied into signing for a check lower than the amount that her husband’s policy indicated. There’s a videotape of her husband smoking, so the representative is actually doing her a favor by giving her any money at all, he assures her.
Forrest Whitaker plays Holt, as a quiet, awkward, out-of-place insurance investigator with a Minnesotan accent who travels to a small town to evaluate a potential death policy claim after a car crashes into a bridge and leaves a charred, unidentifiable body. The car, and the license in the glove compartment, suggest that the remains belongs to an on-the-run con man whose sister, Isold is the sole beneficiary of the policy.
Julia Stiles plays Isold, who lives with her husband Fred (Jeremy Renner) and child (Alfred Harmsworth). It is clearly not a happy household, as the male continually stands between the bond of the mother and child. She hasn’t heard from her brother in a long time and doesn’t know why her brother would come out of hiding, but her husband has certianly been acting strange.
The film introduces the mystery by showing the crime, so there’s never any question that Fred did it. But the details and motivation provide plenty of opportunities for twists. More important is the characters’ reactions to the revelations. This isn’t your typical action thriller, but a study of people in specific situations who have to make difficult decisions.
By giving the investigative hero the profession of an insurance adjuster, the film creates a fascinating series of contradictions. The classic detective noir structure—which “A Little Trip to Heaven” at times recalls—throws its hero into a mystery that he wasn’t hired to solve, but has to decipher for personal reasons. By contrast, Holt is simply doing his job and trying to save his company money. If he gets to the bottom of things, the character who is in the worst situation stands to suffer the greatest loss.
Icelandic writer/director Kormákur, who made the excellent “101 Reykjavik” and and the disappointingly dreary “The Sea,” makes his English-language debut with a stylish film that captures the bleak gloom of a desolate town and contrasts it with a satire of insurance commercials that concentrate on happy, sunny days—not the ones that require insurance. The percussion-based soundtrack and solid performances add to the eerie feel as our ignoble hero descends into a quiet hell, perhaps looking for a way into heaven, perhaps simply trying to keep its premiums down.