By Michael Nordine | November 12, 2010

Any study on Scandinavia will tell you that the region is one of the happiest and most peaceful in the world; a look at its recent cinema will suggest just the opposite. Between Let the Right One In, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and almost anything by Lars Von Trier, Nordic cinema as of late seems to have been conceived under the influence of its long, dark winter months. Thomas Vinterberg’s Submarino (adapted from the Jonas T. Bengtsson novel of the same name) is no exception, but it takes a far more grounded approach to its portrait of filial deterioration. Gone are the vampires and rape scenes of the overvalued Let the Right One In and Dragon Tattoo, replaced by a far more sobering look at two estranged brothers on the fringe of society whose reunion is both accidental and under the worst possible circumstances. That shared moments between the two are so rare and ultimately unhelpful is perhaps their greatest misfortune.

The title of the film translates to underwater, which is as apt a description of the characters’ lives as any other. Almost every single person in Submarino is struggling to stay afloat, but the water only seems to gets deeper: Nick, recently out of jail and unable to prop himself up; his unnamed brother, a junkie raising a young son on his own; Ivan, an unstable man with stalker tendencies; the list goes on. To his credit, Nick is often self-abnegating in his attempts to help those close to him, despite his own troubles. But Submarino is not a film in which such efforts are rewarded, and the fact that such a flawed character as Nick is its moral compass is troubling in and of itself. Such a story could easily turn into melodrama, but Vinterberg prevents such a turn with a steady directorial hand, presenting everything as is and without sensationalizing in the slightest. This is to the film’s advantage: it is gritty (a word often mis- and overused) without being overwrought, realistic while still maintaining dramatic tension throughout.

Over the course of the film, an untreated wound on Nick’s hand—which he received as a result of repeatedly punching a payphone after not liking what he heard on the other end of its—grows worse and worse. As it festers under the gauze, we come to understand that this physical wound may well be a stand-in for his bruised spirit, a sort of physical manifestation of his inner demons. Though it lurks just beneath the surface, Nick works hard to keep his anguish at bay, an unending task that saps much of his energy away on a daily basis—something further exacerbated by the fact everybody he knows needs to grab onto him in order to keep swimming.

A song that recurs throughout Submarino is centered around the line “everything goes back to the beginning,” and it’s true: Vinterberg presents as the main cause for Nick and his brother’s troubled lives their harrowing upbringing (or lack thereof) at the hands of their permanently-drunk mother. It’s left to the two young boys to take care of their newborn baby brother, and when tragedy inevitably strikes, the film immediately advances some twenty or so years to the sordid state of affairs that is the two brothers’ mostly-separate existences. But rather than excuse their actions, this opening prologue serves to remind of the difficulties of breaking a cycle that’s already been started. And, truth be told, there’s never any question of whether or not we sympathize with Nick and his brother—both are flawed to say the least, but they’re also trying.

Structurally, the film is roughly divided into two halves—the first showing events from Nick’s perspective, the second from his brother’s—that make us realize after a certain point just how estranged the two men really are from each other. (Rare moments of overlap are interspersed throughout in a manner that feels more genuinely incidental than contrived.) Why, we wonder, would they each drift so far from the one they need—and can help—most? Is it a condition of being neglected by the one who was supposed to be there before all others? Submarino leaves such questions treading water, knowing fully well they’re more likely to sink than swim.

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