'Troubled Water' A Tumultuously Brilliant Study

Directed by: Erik Poppe, Runtime: 115 min.
Grade: A-

Coming to grips with past mistakes and making peace with transgressions, whether someone's entirely guilty of them or not, are themes that have been explored extensively in various forms throughout cinema. The ability to ceaselessly dissect this topic perpetuates on the individuality within each story, creating different challenges -- both physical and internal -- for those re-emerging into society to react against. Troubled Water (DeUsynlige), Erik Poppe's examination into the mind of a man recently released from prison, also integrates an outlook on religion and the fervor of maternal instinct within its challenging sketch of post-trauma piousness. And it's exceptionally handled, backdropped with musical elegance and a daring point-of-view.

The screenplay, written by Harald Rosenløw-Eeg, riffs on a story that'll seem familiar to those who have seen the likes of American History X or Boy A, with melancholy happenstance echoing Mean Creek as its driving force. It's about Jan (Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen), otherwise known to us by his middle name Thomas, who has recently taken a job as an organ player after his release from prison. His reason for being in jail is somewhat murky, but we're aware that an accident along the bank of a river made him, and his friend, responsible for the death of a young boy. We're led to believe that the church had its reluctance in taking in the ex-convict until he works a little finger magic on the organ's keys, impressing with his talent and his ability to immediately start work. Along the way, he timidly befriends a female priest and her son, a boy of the same age as his "victim".

Troubled Water transitions into a portrait of coping with a half-caused sin, an event that leaves us wondering whether Thomas should or shouldn't be held responsible for something he did when he was younger. He strikes a chord of empathy with us, though, mostly because on his timid, affected disposition. There's a sense of both time-weathered numbness and vivacity about him, conflicting as expected from a man somewhat wrongfully put in prison. Personal interpretations of his guilt will differ because of the focal event's heartbreaking nature, shown to us in fragmented flashbacks throughout the film, and that complexity adds to the fervor within Poppe's film. As we see Thomas shed his cast from a prison injury, swallow down the pain, and attempt to dazzle church folk with his talents before being dismissed from the opportunity, he -- a presupposed child killer -- earns our reserved fondness.

As his presence around the church, and around a child, slowly builds into a stirred-up wasp's nest of understated intensity, Troubled Water falls back on authentic, sparingly inventive cinematography from John Christian Rosenlund (Factotum) and resonant musicality to uplift the gloomy tension. Listening to Thomas play in the echoing church gives us a glimpse into his changed personality, showing an artful and tranquil side to him that eases our discernment of his troubled past. Thomas, though, isn't really a suspect character in our eyes, mostly a kid who's made a mistake and paid dearly for it; the cinematography, as it follows him through the small city where he works, neutralizes any threatening qualities about him amid clean lines, dimly-lit apartments and the bustling normalcy of a regular, low-key life. The docile visuals also aid in our earnest absorption of his rediscovery of love, his purpose in life, and, in a roundabout way, a controlled reconnection with the will of a higher power.

Erik Poppe and his screenwriter might present Thomas' re-socialization at the beginning with sophistication, but it's only once the duality of Troubled Water enters into the picture that its raw intensity begins to take shape. We also see the child's "disappearance", and Thomas' release, in the eyes of the child's mother Agnes, a now-adoptive parent who's on the cusp between absolution and an irrational sense of anger over her lost child. Played with bleeding, wide-eyed passion by Trine Dyrholm, she sees Thomas in church and around children, only aware of him as a murderer and not of the context of his growth -- pains learned in prison, a developed affection for the nurse's child, and his coming-to-grips with the accident. An underlying glimpse into maternal instinct and reopened wounds sets in motion with her emotional stirring, giving us two points of view coarsely grinding against each other. Poppe doesn't ask us to take sides on the matter, though the actions of one will steer our focus; instead, he simply orchestrates purity of rage and torment within the mother's fearful instinct, allowing us to witness the events through two sets of eyes without attempting to either directly placate our provoke our outlook.

Troubled Water boils to an ardent, thematically complex turn of events in the finale that plays with the irrationality of a scorned mother's pain. Resent, misunderstanding, justice, and forgiveness all attempt to swirl together in this potent culmination, one with reopened wounds and fresh woes alike surfacing amid the collision between Thomas and Agnes. It reaches into a chaotic blitz involving all the puzzle pieces fitted against each other from the beginning, somehow reaching a cathartic conclusion between a mother's loss and a convict's need to vanquish the last demons that followed him from his life-altering past. Moreover, there's a sense of tension achieved in the final moments that paints broad strokes of emotional suspense against Thomas' story. We hope all along for his full atonement, and the way it's achieved -- with water rushing in the background, just like the film's core event -- is breathtaking. This is a film that's not to be missed.


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