The Icelandic director Hlynur Palmason, in his second feature-length film, shows an acute sensitivity to the potential relations between environment and cinematic pace. He exercises that quality in ingenious and galvanic ways in “A White, White Day,” an eerily gripping study of grief — and impotence in its face — with the trappings of a revenge thriller.
Ingvar Sigurdsson plays Ingimundur, a rough-hewed semiretired police officer in late middle age. He lives in a small community on the eastern coast of Iceland, a land both beautiful and harsh, a sparsely populated environment where time itself seems to hang in the cold air.
Ingimundur spends time with his former colleagues, dotes on his adorable 8-year-old granddaughter, Salka (a remarkable Ida Mekkin Hlynsdottir), and works on renovating a building for her, and his daughter and her husband, to live in. Part of this process is shown in a startling series of static shots, taken at various times of day and even seasons, early in the movie, a montage that pulls the neat trick of feeling both fast and endless.
But Ingimundur is mostly haunted. The movie’s very first shot follows an SUV driving down a twisted length of road, and then plunging through a guard rail down a steep incline. The vehicle, we’ll learn, was driven by Ingimundur’s wife, who died in the accident.
“She used to cut my hair,” he says. “I think I miss that.” Ingimundur doesn’t talk much about his wife, but the way the resourceful actor Sigurdsson delivers those lines evokes formidable emotional life. The house renovation work doesn’t fill the emptiness he feels. Then Ingimundur finds, in his wife’s things, evidence that she was having an affair. He latches on to this like a ravenous infant, and pursues the neighbor who was his wife’s lover.
Palmason, the director (and writer), conveys obsession with affinity but also detachment. He chooses crucial moments in the unfolding disaster of Ingimundur’s pursuit to pause and consider, for instance, the objects in the character’s room — a small metal box, a smooth rock that could serve as a paperweight or a murder weapon, and more. A tense discussion among family members is eventually all but drowned out by an obnoxious children’s TV show that little Salka watches, and Palmason’s camera is drawn to the screen like a moth to flame.
Rather than diminish the scenario’s suspense, these accents and off beats accentuate it. The result is an emotionally wringing film, equally effective in the narrative and tone-poem departments.
A White, White Day
Not rated. In Icelandic, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes. Watch on Film Movement’s Virtual Cinema.