Friday, 9 March 2012

Review: Troll Hunter

Quick, what does a troll hunter look like? A dashing adventurer? A leather-clad super-hero? A suited government agent in sunglasses?

According to the Norwegian film Troll Hunter ('Trolljegeren' in its native Norwegian) (2010, trailer), this is a troll hunter:

All in a day's work.

His name is Hans (Otto Jespersen), and he works for the Troll Security Service, a clandestine subsidiary of the Norwegian Wildlife Board.

He does not hunt indiscriminately; he is tasked with the disposal of errant trolls who transgress their territorial borders and pose a threat to rural towns and livestock.

Troll Hunter is presented in the found-footage style, filmed by zealous students looking to make a documentary. Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud) presents, Johanna (Johanna Mørck) carries the boom mic, and Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen) shoots the footage.

We start in the rural mountains as the three interview hunters concerned with a bear poacher in their midst. The suspect is Hans, who has recently started lurking in his nearby trailer and stalking around at night in his truck, which is punctured with ominous gouges.

Hans dismisses the amateur filmmakers’ questioning and tells them to stay away, but Thomas is undeterred: ‘Do you think Michael Moore gave up after the first try?’

One night they follow Hans’s truck into a towering forest, where we hear guttural grunts and roars. A panicked Hans stumbles towards them through the trees and yells: ‘Troll!’

Thomas’s car is mysteriously savaged and upturned, so Hans offers them a ride. He allows the team to film his return to combat the alleged monster, on the condition that he is assured that nobody believes in God, as trolls feast on Christian blood. The team must also scrub themselves in a freezing brook and mask their scent with ‘troll stench’ - a viscous, putrid-smelling slime made of ‘all the crap you can squeeze out of a troll.’

The miserable group then slogs into the forest, and Hans tells them to wait while he goes ahead. ‘Maybe he’s filming us’, Thomas observes. ‘He’s somewhere laughing at us’. Pretty plausible, actually.

Wouldn't you know it, the troll is real. Furthermore, what Hans thought was only a Ringlefinch turned out to be a much bigger Tosserlad (other impressively-named troll varieties include the Jotnar, the Rimetosser and the Mountain King). The group flees back to the truck and Hans flashes a huge ultraviolet light, which instantly turns it to stone.

Throughout the rest of Troll Hunter, the students learn more about trolls and chronicle Hans’s investigation as to why so many are suddenly going rogue.

My Take

Why does Hans let these people film him? Well, troll hunting is miserable work, and he is disgruntled: ‘I get no night bonus. No overtime. No nuisance compensation.’ He wants the footage to be broadcasted on TV, in hopes that the exposure will cause a change in 'troll management', which would presumably grant him his rightful benefits.

He sleeps under UV-lights in his battered, troll-stank-dripping trailer, and apparently only has access to outdated equipment - including a clunky, segmented suit of rusted armor with a diving bell-like helmet. I thought all this provided an interesting angle – Hans’s amazing job is downplayed as thankless work, not unlike that of an exterminator or a janitor.

With only a meager $3.5 million budget, the filmmakers manage to craft surprisingly realistic CGI trolls, which are - I think - very well designed. They look basically like elderly Neanderthals covered in shaggy hair, but their scoliotic postures and craggy, rock-like skin reinforce the idea that they are ancient relics - according to Hans, some reach over a thousand years old.

Evocative touches characterize them as both threatening and dim-witted, but in a human way – we see two Mountain Kings have some kind of grunting dispute, and in one of the build-up shots of the Tosserlad we see it scratching its giant troll-butt.

Another way the filmmakers sell the trolls is by using practical effects to have them interact with their environment, much like District 9 did with its aliens. A Ringlefinch creaks and shakes the boards on a bridge it walks on, and the Tosserlad fells trees in its path.

Other clever touches include the use of an actual stone model for when Hans breaks apart the petrified Tosserlad, and sequences where we see the trolls through a night vision filter.

Trolls. Believe.

The effects are coupled with great scenery, which was shot on location in Norway. Mist-swathed mountains, deep valleys, towering forests, ominous caves and vast plains facilitate the atmosphere of a mysterious land which could conceivably hide unknown creatures.

I feel that Troll Hunter strikes a great balance between effective fantasy and affectionate parody. The trolls are presented as completely real, but there is also an undercurrent of self-aware commentary about the silliness of it all:

Bizarre and fantastic troll details (some of the trolls have three heads) get weird faux-scientific explanations (actually, they are not technically heads, but growths meant to scare rivals and attract mates).

At one point the students recruit a crew member who isn’t a Christian, but a Muslim. They ask Hans if that will be OK, and he nonchalantly answers: ‘I honestly don’t know. We’ll see what happens.’

I thought that was great – after all, how would he know? This highlights the absurdity in how supernatural creatures’ details are always somehow explicit in their myths. In real life, how would anyone figure out that only silver bullets kill werewolves, or that garlic does in a vampire?

I do think the film does have its falling points: Kalle the cameraman becomes involved in a crucial plot point, but this is confusing - I saw and heard so little from him that I forgot that he was even a character. We do, however, see a lot  more of Johanna the microphone carrier, even though she is not as important plot-wise.

The film’s end is very abrupt, and I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand it seems a bit lazy and smells like the money ran out, but on the other hand the ending text cards evoke and parody melodramatic Loose Change-like conspiracy theory videos:

‘The teenagers behind the recordings have vanished without a trace. We strongly encourage anyone with information about their fate to contact your local police station.’

The lead up to the end is spectacular, though.

You're gonna need a bigger truck.

Apparently Chris Columbus (director of the first two Harry Potter films) bought the rights to Troll Hunter, and intends to remake it as an American blockbuster. I would like to encourage people to see the original before the title inevitably becomes associated (Wicker Man-style) with an overblown, ostentatious remake. Meanwhile, I anticipate whatever writer-director André Øvredal does next.


Further Reading

For more films that aren't in the English language, you can see my posts about MotherThe Skin I Live In, and Nine Queens.

Screengrabs: Troll Hunter was produced by Film Fund FUZZ and Filmkameratene A/S, and the UK DVD was distributed by Momentum Pictures.

© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this weblog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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