The Icelandic film XL has been described as some sort of cross between Memento, The Hangover and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Let’s inspect this a little bit. Memento is mentioned is because the film’s protagonist, politician Leifur (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), has trouble remembering things and because the film goes back and forth in time, but that’s about it. Hangover is mentioned because Leifur is an alcoholic and is hung over for much of the movie and has troubles figuring out what happened the day before, but it’s really nothing like The Hangover. The comparisons to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas make the most sense as that film was viewed through the eyes of a drug addict, complete with hallucinations and what have you. XL is viewed through the eyes of a drunk, complete with blackouts (scenes are often divided with fade-to-black) and blurry vision. Both movies can also be described as borderline nihilistic and don’t have much in the way of a plot.
XL is clearly trying to bring something fresh to Icelandic cinema and in that sense it’s very welcome. The film was independently financed for the most part and it probably would have been hard to get official financing for a film like this. This is a bleak, ugly and highly experimental film. It deals with alcoholism in the bleakest, bluntest way possible and its style feels a bit like everyone was drunk while making it, but not in a bad way. Director Marteinn Þórsson deserves some admiration and kudos for trying to do something different here and for showing alcoholics in their ugliest form.
But sadly, the film doesn’t succeed as a whole. It’s a movie full of ideas, playing around with various visual tricks and hinting at many interesting elements. But in the end none of it adds up to much of anything. The main problem is that the movie is curiously flat and one-note. The movie starts off by “waking up” after a bad night of drinking, it starts in a hangover. Several visual tricks are introduced (things coming in and out of focus, the screen going half-black etc.) to convey this. But the thing is, the film pretty much sits in that gear for most of its running time. Only in the final section does it get a bit crazy but not that much crazier than the rest and it’s just too little, too late by then. XL never really takes off and when it’s over it barely feels like it’s begun.
Still, there’s something to like here and XL is not exactly a *bad* film per se. To begin with, Ólafur Darri gives a solid lead performance and makes for a convincing drunk. Before this he’s strictly played likable characters, usually really nice guys. His character in Rokland (director Þórsson’s previous film) had his flaws but you still came to like him eventually. But there’s isn’t much to like about Leifur. Aside from being a drunk and a womanizer, he’s also violent and corrupt and apparently not a good dad. Much of the supporting cast is also solid, with good performances from Þorsteinn Bachmann, Stefán Jónsson, Ævar Þór Benediktsson, Tanja Björk Ómarsdóttir and Nanna Kristín Magnúsdóttir to name a few. The acting occasionally gets theatrical, but less than in many Icelandic films.
XL should also be lauded for doing a good job of showing the POV of a drunk. It’s is clearly trying to structure itself like a drinking binge, complete with hangover as well the preparations for the binge. It’s an incoherent mess, but it was probably supposed to be that way.
And yet it doesn’t work. There’s no real plot (unless you call “A drunk has one night of bad drinking before going sober” a plot) and everythings’s a blur. The blurriness might be intentional and there have been many great films with no plot (Dazed and Confused and Lost In Translation to name a couple), but they usually add up to something. Not this time. Individual scenes often work fine on their own, but they don’t string together. What this film is trying to say exactly is hard to tell. Maybe it’s trying to make the viewer understand why some people drink so much, what it is that makes alcoholics “tick”, but it’s hard to care when nearly all the main characters are impossible to like. The main problem is simply that the movie takes itself too seriously. Part of what made the equally messy Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas work so well was its irreverence, while still offering some food for thought. While XL is often very humorous it needed more and might even have worked better as a (very black) comedy of sorts.
Final Verdict: XL is a brave and bold film that ultimately doesn’t amount to much. You might a call it a fascinating mess. It’s unclear what the point of the movie is and most of its characters, although well played, are neither likable nor memorable. It’s also rather one-note and flat and seriously lacks build-up. Individual scenes sometimes work fine but they don’t gel together. Still, director Marteinn Þórsson shows here that he’s an interesting, risk-taking director. Let’s hope he gets a clearer idea for his next film.