Credit: Tribeca Film Festival
by Daniel Gorman Featured Film

The Damned — Thordur Palsson [Tribeca ’24 Review]

June 12, 2024

The best thing that can be said for co-writer/director Thordur Palsson’s debut feature film The Damned is that it looks and feels like a real movie. This is not damning with faint praise; in an era of prestige TV and regurgitated IP, images have been unconscionably degraded, washed out from poorly calibrated monitors or cropped for phones and TikTok. Palsson and cinematographer Eli Arenson have instead composed a nightmarish landscape film that is frigid and oppressive, all the better to concoct a tale of madness that tears a small fishing village apart. It’s visually sumptuous, even if the screenplay leaves much to be desired.

The Damned begins with a moral quandary: a group of fishermen sequestered for the long winter in a remote locale are learning that their meager provisions will not last until the spring thaw. Eva (Odessa Young) owns the boat in the stead of her recently deceased husband, while Ragnar (Rory McCann) leads the men. So while the men answer to Ragnar, Eva has final say on when and how often they can use the boat, a fact that does not sit well with them. Tensions mount and tempers flare when the group discover a large vessel that has run aground on the rocky shoreline surrounding the village, trapped there by the high tide. One of the men, Daniel (Joe Cole), wants them to sail out to the vessel to rescue any survivors, while Ragnar says no — they don’t even have enough food for themselves, let alone for any survivors there might be. The men look to Eva for the final decision, and after some deliberation, she sides with Ragnar. 

Matters get more complicated when a barrel of cured meats wash up on shore the next day. The ship might have more food that can help them survive the winter, but once the high tide recedes, any wreckage will disperse out to sea. Despite the obvious dangers, Eva allows the men to take the boat to search the wreckage, but when some sailors — still very much alive, clinging to rocks like wet rats — try to climb aboard, the fishermen fight them off lest they capsize the boat and dump all of them into the frigid waters. In the melee, Daniel stabs a man in the face, a gory bit of business that shocks Eva into stunned silence. Upon their return to shore, the group discovers that all of their efforts have netted them some brandy and lamp oil — hardly worth the cold-blooded murder of a stranger.

These early scenes are rendered in sharp detail, with an emphasis on the vastness of the land and the harsh textures of the cramped living spaces. Palsson adroitly utilizes the widescreen fame, a refreshing change of pace after myriad contemporary films that have no idea what to do with the 2.35:1 format. Instead of leaning on empty negative space, Palsson arranges figures within the frame, creating a rhythm between the bustling group dynamic and Eva’s isolation.  It’s fine work, which makes it all the more unfortunate when the film devolves into a bog standard bit of elevated horror claptrap. Some of the men are superstitious and worried that the bodies of the dead sailors might return as “Draugur,” a fear dismissed by Eva and Daniel. But soon they all start seeing things; some fall ill, and a shadowy figure haunts the nooks and crannies of the shack. Eva is plagued by images of the sailor that Daniel stabbed, his mouth twisted into a rictus sneer. Are there ghosts afoot? Or is it all in Eva’s head? You won’t be surprised by the answers. 

It’s just a shame that so much good work is wasted on clichéd narrative beats, in particular an ending that makes thuddingly literal everything that has happened in the film — not unlike a teacher forced to dumb down curriculum to appease the lowest common denominator. Still, mood and atmosphere can get you a long way, and Palsson clearly has ample talent in this regard. Someone needs to tell him that it’s okay to make a horror movie that’s not a metaphor for grief or an exploration of PTSD. You can just make a scary one.

Published as part of Tribeca Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 1.