Film Review: The Oath

A father's efforts to rescue his drug-addicted daughter take a dark turn in this thriller from Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormákur.
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Heart surgeon Finnur (director Baltasar Kormákur) is at the top of his profession, but his personal life is rocky. He's on his second marriage—to the supportive Solveig (Margrét Bjarnadóttir), mother of his younger daughter—but his eldest, Anna (Hera Hilmar), is a bundle of sullen, rebellious fury with a history of addiction and a drug-dealing boyfriend, Ottar (Gísli Örn Garðarsson), to whom she's utterly devoted. She's also unemployed and can't even bother to make it to her grandfather's funeral on time, even though her father is still paying her bills. (The financial arrangement was contingent on her staying in school, which she hasn't.)

Since Finnur and Anna are cut from the same stubborn, uncompromising cloth, it's clear from the outset that Finnur's determination to rescue his not-so-little girl from Ottar's bad influence isn't going to go unchallenged. The question becomes just how far he’s willing to go.

Kormákur, who began his career as an actor, made a striking directing debut with Jar City, adapted from the psychological thriller by Arnaldur Indriðason, and has made several films in the US, including Everest (2015) and the Denzel Washington-Mark Wahlberg action-comedy 2 Guns (2013). And though The Oath's intense family drama plays out against a distinctive Nordic landscape, one in which bustling modern cities are surrounded by vast, thinly populated stretches of woods and hills, it's not hard to imagine it unfolding in parts of the American Southwest. But, like Jar City, The Oath is less concerned with guns and cars (though both figure into the story) than hearts and minds, the former none-too-subtly telegraphed by Finnur's area of surgical specialization.

What lifts The Oath out of the realm of exploitation is the casual refinement of its performances. There's no strenuous acting going on, just a series of reactions to increasingly outrageous turns of fortune. And they are outrageous—The Oath isn't Death Wish, but the corner into which Finnur paints himself is preposterous, even in the context of a father's desperate desire to protect a child who doesn't want protecting and his mounting frustration with a system whose representatives persist in playing by not-unreasonable rules. Anna is an adult, after all, if a young and self-destructive one, and thus has the right to make her own mistakes. And though Finnur truly loves his daughter, it's also clear that he loathes Ottar for reasons that go beyond concern for Anna. Both men have a broad streak of preening male vanity, and in their scenes together it's hard not to see a pair of dogs with fangs bared and hackles raised.

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