“Metalhead” (2013) Heavy Metal in the Icelandic Countryside (Review)

One would think an Icelandic film in which metal music is in the foreground would already exist, considering the country’s viking ancestry and magnificent landscape which make Iceland a very “metal” country, and also because their cousins in Norway and Sweden are at the forefront of metal music in the world. But as it turns out that is not the case.

Until now.

Icelandic director Ragnar Bragason decided that this gap in Icelandic cinema needed to be filled so he went ahead and made a movie whose protagonist is a great lover of heavy metal. She is also female and lives on a farm in the Icelandic countryside. This is Metalhead (Málmhaus).

At the beginning of the film the protagonist Hera (Þorbjörg Helga Þorgilsdóttir) witnesses the death of her brother in an accident. This event has a profound effect on her and her parents which affects their lives in the long run. Her mother becomes depressed while Hera starts listening to metal music and living a metal lifestyle, which mostly consists of wearing black and not giving a fuck about anything. Also, it’s set in 1992.

In many ways Metalhead is a rather conventional and very Icelandic film. It’s yet another tale of a person from a closed-off society who can’t connect with anyone there and finds solace in a fringe culture, heavy-metal on this occasion. It’s also yet another tale of a family dealing with grief, each in their own way. These are two themes very common in Icelandic cinema (and even art house cinema overall). But director Bragason’s choice of putting heavy metal in the foreground (he’s an old metalhead himself) is largely what makes this stand apart from many other, similar films.

The film does take some time to get going and improves as it goes along. The first part of the movie loses its way a bit with hackneyed symbolism (like when Hera’s mother scrubs her hands *really hard*, apparently trying to “scrub away the bad memories”) and Hera’s behavior is not always very convincing. Is she rebelling just to rebel? She’s 21 years old but behaves more like a 15-year-old at times. But gradually we get to understand what exactly is going on inside her head. It’s not just that she’s dealing with her brother’s death, it’s also that she’s totally unsure of herself and doesn’t know what to do with herself and her life. This causes her a lot of frustration.

Metalhead isn’t just a movie about dealing with grief and being an outsider but also a story about trying to find yourself and your identity. It turns out Hera’s dream is to make her own metal music, it’s not enough for her just to listen to it. The film is Hera’s journey towards her true self. Þorgilsdóttir’s strong lead performance helps make it a worthwhile journey and she is equally adept at portraying the joy and the sadness that the journey entails.

The rest of the cast is also pretty solid. There’s strong support from one of Iceland’s most respected actors (if not the most respected), Ingvar E. Sigurðsson, as her father, and Hannes Óli Ágústsson as her best friend who happens to be in love with her. Sveinn Ólafur Gunnarsson is also memorable as the new priest in town who turns out to be secret lover of metal music himself.

Still, the overall feeling of familiarity and a certain lack of “oomph” keeps Metalhead being something truly special. The film makes you feel for the characters and shows you their world but it feels like Bragason could have taken this material to an even more special place as he too often resorts to convention. Even with metal music being in the foreground this story still doesn’t feel, quite, “metal” enough.

The Good: Solid performances all around and some good metal music as well.

The Bad: Tends to resort to hackneyed clichés, like someone metaphorically drowning their sorrows by taking a shower.

The Metal: Our hero has corpse paint on her face for a large part of the movie.

Overall Score: 7.0/10

Written By Atli

Atli is a film geek from Iceland who dreams of being a great film director, but until then he’s going to criticize the works of other film directors, great and not-so-great alike. His favorite actor is Sam Rockwell and his favorite directors are (among others) Robert Altman, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Billy Wilder, Woody Allen and Stanley Kubrick. Atli also loves pizza, travelling and reading good books.

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  • Shane

    Well, I’m sold. I mean, I was sold at “metal”, but great review for a film I probably never would have heard of otherwise.

  • Sometimes narrative conventions work. Sometimes lives and events and circumstances follow cliches. What matters is what’s at the heart of the story. You’re entitled to have your opinion, but I think it’s completely unfair to shortchange a film because it doesn’t reinvent the wheel. “Conventions” be damned: Metalhead worked on nearly every level when I saw it at SBIFF. In fact, it moved me like few other films have in recent years. Wonderful screenplay, great pacing, powerhouse acting, breathtaking cinematography – it’s the complete package. Can’t wait for it to be picked up for wider distribution!

  • Atli Sigurjónsson

    Different strokes for different folks. I think it’s putting it a little strongly that I wanted the movie to “reinvent the wheel” but as fine a film as it is I just thought it lacked something to be a truly great film, not just that it was a little too clichéd (clichés can be okay but there were a few moments in the movie which were just too much for me). A certain “je ne sais quoi” was missing in my opinion, it’s hard to put my finger on it but I just wasn’t *that* moved. But I’m glad it did so much for you, hopefully many others will be equally moved. All hail Icelandic Cinema!