Joachim Trier’s follow-up to his acclaimed 2015 drama, Louder Than Bombs, takes a page from It Follows to be part-horror, part-coming-of-age, and wholly unexpected.
The film opens with a young girl and her father out in the wilderness, passing a frozen lake and heading into the woods. Whilst the girl is looking away, the father takes his weapon and points it at the back of her head. There is a moment of doubt, as he decides between pulling the trigger or not – a dark and chilling scene that sets the stage for what’s to come. We find out that this girl is our eponymous character, played by Eili Harboe, before flashing forward a few years to find she has enrolled to study in Oslo, Norway. Her parents are overbearing, however, and reluctant to give their daughter away to the big, bad world of freedom. In Oslo, the introverted Thelma meets Anja (Kaya Wilkins), who begins to bring out the best in her as she begins to break out of her shell and cut loose from her parents. But things soon go awry when she learns that she has supernatural abilities and has to come to terms with dealing with their power and danger.
Thelma isn’t a horror film in the typical sense of what we would expect from one: it’s devoid of scares and genre cliché. But it is most certainly horrific: similar to the aforementioned It Follows, Thelma is atmospheric and claustrophobic. Trier’s direction is haunting, and he masterfully orchestrates such brilliant, genuinely unnerving tension throughout. It’s patient and purposeful, tightening its claws around its audience ever so slowly.
This film is a slow-burner and, whilst it takes its time to find its footing, it becomes terribly effective in creating a very dark and sinister atmosphere: one that drenches us in sweat and fear. The frostbitten cinematography certainly adds to this hostility. However, whilst this is all pivotal in creating an absorbing mise en scene, it’s the afterthought to character and story. Trier establishes his story and characters with great care – the writing is sharp and there’s a palpable authenticity that grounds the proceedings. The film also weaves and meanders in constantly unexpected and unique ways, revealing its unpredictable hand to its audiences slowly – but with assured delivery.
The performances across the board are remarkable: Harboe gives a performance that is vulnerable yet haunting. We can feel her pain, and her power, and she plays it with such vigorous and raw conviction. Joachim Trier, too, excels. His direction and storytelling is slick; thematically, this film tackles a lot but it feels more relevant and necessary than ever right now. It’s just so different and wholly unexpected, permeated with a constantly unpredictable, sinister edge. It’s flawed, yes, but it’s incredible: chilling, intense, and massively engrossing. In a year already so impressive, Thelma continues that trend and it really shines.