Metalhead: A Story of Raw Grief Told Through Heavy Metal and Icelandic Gloom
One of the two most prolific posters for Icelandic writer/director Ragnar Bragason’s new drama Metalhead shows a young woman seated at the dinner table with her parents. She is in full black metal corpse paint, and her parents look none too pleased. But this isn’t your run of the mill, “those crazy kids and their loud music” movie. Metal isn’t the villain or even the joke in this story; it’s not exaggerated to be what’s rotting the next generation’s brains or the out-of-control streak of rebellion horrifying a community. Metalhead is understated and honest, and the role metal plays is real and relatable. The film is a portrait of a family in grief, angled on a girl named Hera, and how metal serves as her lifeline.
Bragason has proclaimed his own lifelong metalhead status in the interviews that followed this film’s release in Europe. But until now, his body of work has focused on other themes, mainly familial ones. His most acclaimed projects--a set of films released in 2006 and 2007 called Children and Parents--explored familial relationships from the children’s and then the parents’ points of view. It might be that background that allows Bragason to approach the music genre so thoughtfully and personally. Metalhead doesn’t make broad statements about metal in society, nor does it cast judgments. It simply examines one girl’s relationship with the genre, and we connect to both for her love of the music as well as the frustrated lack of understanding her family and neighbors feel.
We meet Hera as a twelve-year-old girl, about to watch her beloved older brother, Baldur, die in a horrific tractor accident. There are two interesting things to consider about Baldur and his death. For one, the name Baldur is also that of a Norse god who was afraid of dying, so his mother procured promises from everything in the world that no harm would come to him. She failed to see mistletoe as a threat, and so that’s just what killed him. Hera’s brother might have seemed safe on their isolated farm, but it was something as harmless as one of his daily chores maintaining that farm that killed him. Secondly, the accident happens because metalhead Baldur’s long hair gets caught in the mechanism, and Bragason has said in interviews that he remembers seeing that very tragic mishap had happened on the news when he was younger. Bragason’s not out to say one of the visible marks of Baldur’s metal lifestyle killed him, but it might have not agreed with his farm life.
After Baldur’s death, Hera ditches the trappings of her own identity and assumes Baldur’s passion for metal. We rejoin Hera as a young adult, played by Thorbjörg Helga Thorgilsdóttir in a masterfully introspective performance. She dresses in her brother’s band t-shirts and leather jacket, she covers her room in posters, she subscribes obsessively to zines, she makes mix tapes and she becomes pretty damn good at playing guitar, as we hear when she plays Diamond Head’s “Am I Evil?”. Hera has effectively shut herself off from her community, erecting an invisible wall of heavy metal, which her family and neighbors just do not understand. In typical young adult self-absorption, she seems to forget her parents are also still destroyed with grief.
Lonely because she is still mourning and because she eats, sleeps and breathes a genre no one can connect with her on, Hera lashes out. She sets her family’s cows free, she takes drunken joyrides on her neighbor’s tractor, she tries frequently to flee on a bus out of town but never musters the courage to board, and, after seeing a TV report on Norwegian black metal, she’s inspired to burn her town’s church down--she isn’t persecuted for this, nor does she inspire a community-wide wave of rebellion amongst other misunderstood youths. While they may not understand her music, Hera’s neighbors understand her anguish. Metal isn’t a divisive lightning rod for Hera and her community. It’s simply her passion, her consolation, and her coping mechanism - something any of us can relate to.
One of the most powerful tools in Metalhead is its cinematography, which conveys the prevailing melancholy of Scandinavia. Thanks to long stretches of farmland and the rural town against skies that somehow always seem overcast and dull, there’s a mood of isolation and monotony, elements that always seem this close to suffocating Hera. Watching it, one can just feel how quiet and still the air is, a gloomy calm pierced by the loud brashness of heavy metal. There are plenty moments of - albeit subtle - hope: Hera has a moment of relief connecting to the town’s new priest, a Venom fan with an Iron Maiden tattoo. A black metal band that heard the tapes of Hera’s guitar-playing she’s been sending out into the music scene descend upon her sleepy village to find her. But the mood remains a bit gray and almost uncomfortably real.
There is no wild rock and roll ride here, no fairytale love story, no roller coaster highs and lows. Metalhead is just a look at one of the many stories of grief happening in our world at any given moment, except this one is being propelled forward by the safe haven that Judas Priest, Megadeath and Dio can provide and the bonds that metal can form - here between the mourner and the mourned-after, the living and the dead.
The honesty and understatedness of “Metalhead” give the film crossover appeal. Metal fans will enjoy identifying the songs used in different moments and connecting to Hera over the bands she adores. They will relate to the devoted love she has for the genre and the genre’s power to provide her some solace, embracing her while simultaneously perpetuating her isolation and misfit status. But even someone with no interest in metal will relate to what’s happening here. Grief is all-consuming, and people not going through it never seem to understand that there’s no expiration date on it, no magical day it disappears. Those in mourning need something to both distract them from the pain and help them channel it, whether that’s metal or art or gardening or having a ton of pets to care for - anything.
Bragason has turned the volume on metal down without losing its intensity, framing a wild music genre in a real, normal, melancholy story. He has succeeded, perhaps one degree further than a film like Hesher, which placed a misbehaving metalhead at the center of a grief tale but didn’t manage to reveal that metalhead’s human vulnerability quite as much as Metalhead does with Hera. By being both anguished and defiant at once, Hera makes the persona of a metalhead something we all can recognize.
Metalhead will screen at the following theaters in the United States. It will be available On Demand starting April 3.
02/27 – 03/05 – Grand Rapids, MI @ Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts
03/18 – 03/20 – New York, NY @ Scandinavia House / New Nordic Cinema
03/20 – 03/26 – New York, NY @ Cinema Village
03/27 – 04/02 – Los Angeles, CA @ Laemmle NoHo 7
04/10 – 04/16 – Portland, OR @ Hollywood Theatre
04/27 – Pleasantville, NY @ Jacob Burns Film Center