Directed by Thomas Vinterberg
Proving that there’s a very fine line between genuine probing into human failings and all-out misery porn, Thomas Vinterberg’s (Dear Wendy, The Celebration) latest balances itself precariously between the two throughout its runtime, oscillating between plot elements that seem grounded in its characters’ emotional realities and those that are unnecessarily grim, but ultimately redeems itself thanks to fine ensemble work and gutsy, assured direction.
After a touching and unsettling prologue involving an alcoholic matriarch, her overburdened sons, and a makeshift baptism under sheer white linens, Submarino shifts its focus to Nick (Jakob Cedergren), a layabout who divides his time between drinking, exercising and intermittent sexual encounters with his tenement neighbor Sofie (Patricia Schumann). As he pines over a past life with his ex-wife, he reconnects with her estranged brother, an obese, sex-obsessed virgin named Ivan (Morten Rose). Later, we meet Martin (Gustav Fischer Kjærulff), a single father and widower who barely conceals his heroin addiction from his kindergarten-age son.
Child endangerment, alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, and parental failure, among other things, litter Submarino, but for the most part it tends not to feel overburdened by its characters’ afflictions, mostly due to their domino-like causal relationships to one another. That said, the scenes involving Ivan and Sofie don’t quite pass muster in this regard, adding a level of misery that doesn’t feel entirely earned or necessary. Thankfully, as the film progresses, we leave those figures behind to focus on the bond – or lack thereof – between Nick and Martin, Martin’s young son, and their respective struggles to keep afloat in the face of seemingly insurmountable inner turmoil.
Vinterberg’s fleet-footed direction keeps all of this from getting to be too much. His deployment of temporal shifts in the narrative is both subtle and elegant, never calling attention to itself, and instead feeling like an organic outgrowth of the story he’s trying to tell – in other words, it’s not just clever for its own sake. The cast is uniformly strong, with Cedergren effectively muzzling his inner torment behind his three-week beard and inscrutable demeanor, and Kjærulff pulling off the tricky balancing act of seeming to care equally about his son’s well-being and his continued access to the drug that cripples his existence.
When its numerous narrative threads finally converge in the last fifteen minutes, the resulting pathos feels earned, even if its expression can sometimes err on the obvious side, as in one character’s declarative final moments. Not unlike Alejandro González Iñárritu’s disastrous Biutiful, Submarino features a repeated sequence of great power that serves as a bookend, but here, what’s in between justifies that moment and enhances its power rather than just piling on reasons to pity its characters. Vinterberg has a genuine respect for his characters and a desire to see them transcend their trappings, and his film, in turn, mostly succeeds where it could so easily have failed.