A moviegoer, or anyone who keeps up with filmed content these days, could be forgiven for thinking that music is a tired subject right now. So many biopics, so many films and TV shows mythologizing one storied underground scene after another. It’s as if no matter whose life story or which musical moment is being recreated, we’ve heard it all before. The beats land exactly where we expect them to.
Ragnar Bragason’s Metalhead (a.k.a. Málmhaus) avoids those repetitive notes. There are no actors saddled with trying to impersonate musical legends here. Bragason sets his fictional heroine far from the scene of any historical action, and has her obsessed with a musical genre, heavy metal, that has always been as much mocked as it is revered. The story feels novel, authentic. (It’s possible, of course, that any movie about heavy metal directed by a guy named Ragnar would strike me as credible.)
In a rural stretch of Iceland — “remote” hardly does justice to the setting here — in 1983, sweet 12-year-old Hera Karlsdottir (Diljá Valsdóttir) lives with her dairy-farmer parents and her beloved older brother Baldur, a metal fan and aspiring guitarist. Hera has the misfortune of witnessing Baldur die in a grisly accident when his long hair gets caught in a piece of farming equipment. His death leaves the surviving family members all but mute and paralyzed with grief.
Newly embittered toward her parents’ god, Hera enters Baldur’s room one night — at their mother’s insistence, nothing in it has been touched since his death — and adopts his favorite music as her new religion. She dons one of his band T-shirts and burns all her old girly clothes.
Cut to 1992, and 21-year-old Hera (Thora Bjorg Helga) is a musical scene of one in her hometown. She trudges through her parents’ house without speaking, clad in tentlike Slayer and Megadeth T-shirts. (Late in the movie, when we finally see her in clothes that aren’t all black, the sight is a little startling.) Back issues of the metalhead bible Kerrang, like communiqués from another planet in this locale, are the only thing that engage her — apart from setting up her guitar and amp in her parents’ barn, where she sets to wailing, with considerable inventiveness. But lacking any encouragement from anyone around her, Hera can’t quite bring herself to take the crucial step of getting on the bus to Reykjavik, the move she desperately needs to make.
Bragason frames a wide shot of Hera serenading Baldur’s grave with a spectacular landscape of distant mountains — and a sky that seems unfathomably vast and empty — all around her. The shot looks not just like an outtake from an old-school music video, one Hera herself might have thrilled to in her teenage years, but practically definitive for the genre. The image is iconic; Bragason wisely resists the temptation to have the camera circle around her, which would have tipped the moment into cliché.
Instead the shot underscores the appeal of metal in this environment: the monster guitar riffs might be the only thing capable of cleaving through the empty space and making a dent on the isolation. Metal of course has always been synonymous with “the land of the ice and snow”; part of the enjoyment of watching Hera shred against this backdrop is the sense that you might be watching the most Nordic movie ever made.
The humble rural backwater that is both torment and spur for Hera also allows the viewer to hear the music better. With none of the cartoonish aspects of metal to distract us, no dry ice or light show, we hear how much grief and despair — but also, how much ambition and talent — are straining to come through in her playing. The music has to express everything she can’t or won’t communicate verbally.
If there’s a shaft of light peeking through the gloom (both meteorological and emotional) of Hera’s life, it’s in the form of the demo tapes she records late at night in the barn, using 1980s-vintage equipment that can’t help looking Paleolithic today. The viewer comes to appreciate that Bragason is depicting the birth of an artist.
The rest of Hera’s life is not just stagnant, but skidding toward disaster. She gets fired from a job at a slaughterhouse, and her relations with her parents — who are still barely able to process the death of their son nearly 10 years earlier — are at a breaking point. Her sole fun consists of getting drunk by herself and stealing the neighbors’ tractor for midnight joyrides. (By now you may be thinking that you want to either adopt Hera or marry her.)
Further complications arise from her former classmate Knútur (Hannes Óli Ágústsson), a well-meaning, baby-faced square, who persists in seeing Hera as his eventual mate, despite how comically unsuited they are for each other. More troubling is the arrival of the young priest Janus (Sveinn Ólafur Gunnarsson), an instant hit with the townspeople, who sees it as his duty to ‘solve’ Hera. He’s an easy target for her scorn, but we eventually learn that he has an interesting tattoo of his own.
Metalhead strikes some notes of deadpan comedy; how could it not, when lines like “I hate Dio!” and “Halford is a god” serve as pivotal moments of character development. But elsewhere the mood turns grim, threatening to tip the movie into an Icelandic Gothic. Heavy metal’s lyrical preoccupation with death and destruction can strike the non-aficionado as silly, begging for parody, but these are no laughing matters to lonely, brooding Hera.
Bragason works in an intriguing bit of history when Hera catches a TV report about a new wave of black metal bands in Sweden — a new strain of metal that forgoes the kitschier showbiz trappings of her ‘80s idols. Hera’s discovery of this more badass new generation indirectly inspires her to commit a far more serious transgression against the locals than stealing a tractor.
As the stoic, devout villagers have to decide what to do about the head-banging wild child in their midst, Metalhead unexpectedly becomes a poignant affirmation of communal spirit, in its own reticent, understated way. But the movie doesn’t betray Hera’s rebel nature. At the climax she asserts her individuality when she makes her performing debut, backed by a trio of Norwegians in leather pants. It’s a moment of cathartic release that demonstrates how metal is capable of expressing whatever Hera wants it to (and also how well lead actress Thora Bjorg Helga carries the movie, with all its considerable demands on her performance).
At this date it’s quite a feat for a filmmaker to strike some original notes in a movie about any type of rock. Bragason and Metalhead get not just the critic’s shorthand of a thumb’s-up, but a big devil’s-horns sign of affirmation.
Watch the trailer for Metalhead below: