Rift (BHFF 2017)

This year, the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival marks the showing of Rift, an Icelandic horror film that may or may not be a, um, horror film. The story centers around Gunnar (Björn Stefánsson) and Einar (Sigurður Þór Óskarsson), whose recent breakup has caused serious emotional fallout for both. Einar calls up Gunnar in the middle of the night, telling him that he’s “not alone” at his parents’ isolated cabin Rokkur – a statement that bothers Gunnar enough for him to go out to the middle of nowhere to check on his ex. When someone knocks on the door late that night, Gunnar begins to suspect that there’s someone out there who wishes Einar harm. As the film proceeds, the pair explore the death of their relationship, past traumas, and what, exactly, is going on at Rokkur.

What indeed. I wish I could say that Rift is a mysterious and atmospheric ghost story dealing with the destruction of a relationship and the potential threats lurking out on the wasteland. But while the film has a strong start and two interesting central performances, it can’t seem to discover any coherency in its narrative. As Gunnar wanders about, concerned for his ex, it’s never clear why he’s chosen to hang around, or what he expects to find at Rokkur. The external threats are never solidified, and the film relies on glacial cinematography and shots of the Icelandic tundra to create a sense of atmospheric dread that never comes to any sort of head. Rift is a build up without a payoff, ending on a note that appears to be meaningful to a film that never attempts to create any but the obscurest meaning.

Small elements, like Einar’s story of his “invisible friend” abandoning him to the tundra when he was a child, or Gunnar’s revelations about his early sexuality, feel like they should be of more moment than they are. The characters are so inaccessible that the moments of emotion, which should be cathartic, just seem out of place. The same goes for the consistent unanswered questions and unsolved elements dotted throughout Rift‘s icy vistas. Why does the red car bother Gunnar so much? What does this have to do with the weird old farmer and the ghostly little boy? And why did Einar call him in the first place? These questions are not only left unanswered, but the film also appears to believe that they’re important without bothering to give any revelations about them. I can be comfortable with obscurity and leaving some elements unexplained, but this film introduces multiple plot threads that go nowhere and relies solely on the production of atmosphere to establish structure. A film cannot exist on style alone, and it cannot insist that something is important without proving its importance to the viewer.

The two leads of Rift are strong, as far they go. But their endless conversations circumventing the central issue of their breakup become boring after a while, just like everything else in this film. There’s no immediacy to their relationship, or to them coming to understand why it fell apart. They are both so emotionally distant and their motives so difficult to penetrate that whenever they talk, it feels like just endless periods of silence punctuated by important statements that just don’t mean anything. What is happening? Why am I supposed to care?

I think this comes down to the fact that Rift simply does not work. It builds up an atmosphere of dread that, after a while, just becomes dull. The first act promises much, introducing all those mysterious little elements, but the second and third acts meander around until the denouement, in which something definitely happens, but I’ll be damned if I know what. The elision of time, as flashbacks seem to take place at the same time as the “current” narrative, might be interesting if the film had any degree of clarity to what its project is. As an exploration of a dead relationship, it fails to summon emotional resonance. As a horror film, it is not scary. As both, it’s simply incoherent.

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