Call it a road trip for the walking wounded. Stellan Skarsgård plays such a convincingly zombified drunken loser that it's difficult to spend nearly two hours of screen time in his smelly, boozed-out presence. Yet this ever-reliable Swedish actor adds depth and significance to the otherwise plodding and forgettable Aberdeen, a sentimental and painfully mundane European drama.
Playwright August Strindberg built his career on families and relationships paralyzed by secrets, unable to express their longings until the hour is far too late. That's an accurate reflection of what Aberdeen strives for, focusing on the pairing of an alcoholic father, Tomas (Skarsgård) and his alienated, openly hostile yuppie daughter, Kaisa (Lena Headey, Gossip). They haven't spoken in years, and wouldn't even be making the long trip from Norway to Aberdeen, Scotland by automobile if it weren't for Kaisa's mother (Charlotte Rampling, Under the Sand) rotting away in a hospital bed from cancer.
In a soap opera twist, mother has only a few days to live. (Only in the movies, right?) Too blitzed to even step foot on a plane, Tomas hits the open road with Kaisa. Loathing each other all the while, they make periodic stops for Tomas to puke on the dashboard or pass out -- whenever he isn't muttering what a rotten kid she turned out to be. Despite his sloshed viewpoint, Tomas recognizes that the apple hasn't fallen very far from the tree. Kaisa gets nosebleeds from snorting coke, sabotages her personal relationships through indifference, and is unable to restrain her quick and vindictive temper. Ain't they a pair?
Unable to find true notes of unspoken familial empathy in the one-note and repetitively bitchy dialogue, screenwriters Kristin Amundsen and Hans Petter Moland fabricate a series of contrivances to propel events forward -- lost money, roving street hooligans looking for drunks to kick around, nosy cops, and flat tires all figure into the schematic and convenient narrative. By the time they reach the hospital, it's time to unveil the Secrets From A Dark Past that are not only simplistic devices that trivialize the father-daughter conflict, they're also the mainstays of many a bad Strindberg wannabe. This revelation exists purely for its own sake. Aberdeen doesn't know where else to go.
Weak, unimaginative casting thwarts the pivotal role of Kaisa. If Lena Headey were a stronger actress, perhaps Aberdeen could have been able to coast on the performances and moody, haunting cinematography (rendering Norway into its own pastoral ghost world -- the reference to a certain superior American indie flick intentional). Headey's too busy acting, using her face and furrowed brow to convey every last twitch of insouciance. If she were paying any attention to Skarsgård, maybe she'd figure out that doing less can reveal so much more.
It's worthwhile to compare Aberdeen to an earlier film released in 2001, Jonathan Nossiter's captivating Signs & Wonders. It's not just because Skarsgård and Rampling played disturbed parental figures in both films (they're not bound by ceremonial wedlock in Aberdeen). The differences in the way their characters were presented is significant. In Aberdeen, Rampling is a luminous diva, preening and static in her hospital bed. Despite Skarsgård's solid performance as Tomas, his pathetic drunk is never given much of a chance to emote anything besides catatonic sorrow. There's genuine ferocity and sexually charged frisson during their understated confrontations in Signs & Wonders, allowing them to suggest a gray zone of complications that accompany torn romance and years of stifled curiosity.
Nossiter's film thoroughly explores this neurotic territory in addition to delving into the Americanization of Greece and the use of mysticism as an illusion to deflect pain. If Signs & Wonders sometimes feels overloaded with ideas, at least it's willing to stretch beyond what we've come to expect from traditional drama. Aberdeen is never half so ambitious, content to sleepwalk through the rhythms and timing of other movies. When did character driven stories stop paying attention to the complexities of real life? The depressing answer can be found in Lawrence Kasdan's trite but occasionally useful Grand Canyon, where Steve Martin's Hollywood mogul pronounces, "All of life's riddles are answered in the movies!" Even foreign films are taking that advice to heart.
Walk it off.