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.
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