It’s hard to know how well we truly know ourselves. You might think you’ve got yourself figured out one day only to surprise yourself the next. Maybe you stand up to the bully at work or suddenly fall in love with country music. You’re still you, but in a way you’re a new you, too.
In SPELL, Benny (Barak Hardley) has traveled to Iceland to get away from his life in the wake of his wife’s (Jackie Tohn) drowning. He’s not in good shape. His hair is unkempt, his glasses keep sliding down his face, and his OCD–which manifests through a compulsion to lick things–is very nearly out of control.
After wandering around Reykjavík, he heads to a bar and starts chatting with a group of locals. He should take a tour with Steindór (Magnús Jónsson), they tell him, an old-timer who will show Benny the real Iceland. The Benny who got off the plane might have said no, but after a few drinks and flirting with the pretty Icelander Inga (Birna Rún Eiríksdóttir), he agrees.
By the end of the night, Benny finds himself back in his hotel room with Inga, and things start to get steamy. But when Benny wakes up in the morning Inga is gone and so is a chunk of his hair and his late fiance’s ring.
Even in his distraught state, the tour guide, Steindór, convinces Benny to go on the multi-day tour. They’ll get his ring back after, Steindór promises. Thing is, there’s something more to this journey. You see, Icelanders believe in an ancient sorcerer named Loftur who went beyond conventional magic of the day and devoted himself to learning how to raise someone from the dead. Some people, perhaps even Steindór, believe Loftur can return.
Could Benny unwittingly be a part of Loftur’s return? Why did Inga steal his hair and his ring? What forces guided Benny to Iceland, and are they guiding him now?
SPELL was a very intriguing watch; one of a minority of films that truly kept me guessing until the very end. The story, structured around the eight steps of Loftur’s spell, was forever changing in a way that felt organic and was compelling. What started as a grounded exploration of a man’s grief slowly evolved into a near-mythic quest, and just when I felt like I understood, the script took yet another turn and dropped me off someplace unexpected.
But no matter where they take you, director Brendan Walter and actor Barak Hardley always make you feel like you’re in good hands.
Hardley’s performance as Benny is fantastic. This flawed, scared, and broken character is simultaneously sympathetic and alien with Hardley behind the wheel. A person in this state of grief is not easy to play, but Hardley pulls it off nicely. He even executes a monologue spoken to himself, which might be the single hardest thing for an actor to motivate.
Walter, on the other hand, is all confidence, whether it’s massive overhead drone shots or intimate close-ups. His directing work is clearly skilled, but I have to admit that for large sections of the film, I didn’t even notice it. And that’s a compliment. Instead of branding the film with flashy shots and sequences, Walter is content to disappear behind the lens, which brings the audience that much closer to the action.
There was only one thing I wished had been left on the cutting room floor. It came as a bit of voice over at the very end of the film. The third act is a surprising, bold departure from the first two, and I applauded the filmmakers for seeing their tale through to a unique climax, but the inclusion of this little voice over undercut so much of their hard work. Even so, I wouldn’t let it stop you from checking out SPELL.
If you like witchy, wintry magick, SPELL is sure to give you the frosty tingle you’re looking for.