Saturday, 9 January 2016

Film Review - 'Troll Hunter'





Three student film-makers (Thomas, Kalle, and Johanna) set out to follow up on rumours of an poacher illegally hunting bears in the Norwegian wilderness - looking to use these rumours as the basis for a documentary film. Interviewing local hunters, they are directed to a stranger that has often been seen in the area since the bear killings started. Naturally, they feel compelled to follow up on this lead. This mysterious man rebuffs their attempts to get him to speak, though, leading the trio to (bravely or stupidly, take your pick) follow him on one of his nightly trips deep into the nearby woods.

While trying to pick up Hans's trail, the three find themselves confronted by the sight of Hans, himself, running toward them through the woods, seemingly pursued by something large, and shouting the single word 'troll' at them. As they make their escape, Thomas is attacked, and bitten, by something large - though, naturally, none of them had been able to get a clear view of what it might have been. Fleeing the woods with Hans, they also find their own car knocked on its side, and with its tires torn off. Once safe, Hans tells them the truth of what they had inadvertently stumbled into.

Not only do trolls exist, but the man they have been following is a dedicated troll hunter, employed by the Norwegian government to control their population, and to keep them away from populated areas. While still unconvinced by Hans's tale, the student film-makers still see an opportunity for a new focus for their film project, and they ask Hans to allow them to come along and film him.

Fortunately for them, Hans happens to hate his job. He isn't very well paid, he doesn't get anywhere near enough support from the government that employs him, and he doesn't even get over-time. Hans would love to see the entire system changed (or, maybe he's just hoping to get fired), and sees the existence of trolls being made public knowledge as a good way to force that change. So, Hans is quite happy to let them tag along, answering their questions and letting them get the footage they want. Through Hans, we learn the differences between the 'real' trolls of the film, and the trolls of fairy-tale and folk-lore. Sunlight (or, rather, UV radiation) can kill them - causing them to either explode, or turn into stone. They seem particularly attracted to the blood of Christians (a common feature of the old Scandinavian troll folk-lore, apparently). But, they aren't intelligent - and, they can't talk.

Something has changed, though. Trolls are appearing closer to populated areas, and in greater numbers, than they ever have before - almost as though something is driving them from their natural habitat. It is up to Hans, with the team of young film-makers in tow, to find out what is causing this unusual behaviour, and to put a stop to it.

Troll Hunter (Trolljegeren) is another example of the 'found footage' style of mock-documentary that have been floating around since the surprising popularity of The Blair Witch Project, back in 1999. Honestly, if you just happen to dislike these sorts of films, for one reason or another, than Troll Hunter probably isn't going to be enough to change your mind. Though, for what it's worth, it probably rates as one of the best examples of this particularly style of film that I have come across.

The camera-work tends to be the biggest problem with these sorts of 'found footage' films. The 'shaky-cam' affect that you tend to get whenever you have actors rushing about with camera in hand isn't always a lot of fun to watch - and, it could even cause feeling of nausea for some members of the audience. It's a stylistic gimmick that seems to fail just as often as it succeeds. Here, though, it seems to be largely successful. Whether due to a deliberate directorial decision, or simply down to the actor's/character's skill with a camera, the shakiness here seems to be kept to a minimum. There is still enough to give that 'realistic' feeling of tension whenever you have moments of frantic fleeing, of course - but, it is rarely overwhelming.

Honestly, any real problems with the camera-work in this film are likely to be the exact opposite of what you expect - moments when 'film production' seems to get in the way of the 'reality' that the film-makers are aiming for. One scene, in particular, has the camera raised smoothly and steadily, clearly attached to a crane, in what is supposed to be a scene of the one behind the camera being grabbed and lifted by a troll. It's only a small thing, but it still stands out as particularly unconvincing - honestly, if there was ever a scene, in a film like this, where frantic flailing would have been entirely appropriate, it would have been that one. Overall, though, the camera work does a fairly good job of maintaining that sense of immediate urgency (which is the whole purpose of these sorts of films) without making the film, itself, unwatchable. Not all 'found footage' films are able to to do same - so, it feels like an achievement, here.

As you might expect, Hans is the most fascinating figure, here. A worn-down veteran troll hunter who seems to genuinely resent the suggestion that there is anything heroic about what he does - he would be intimidating, if he did not constantly seem in desperate need of a vacation, or at least a decent night of sleep. Troll Hunter is definitely his film, with the three student film-makers simply being invited along for the ride. The three are likable enough, though - or, at least, they get to that point, eventually. Thomas is enthusiastic, and eager to hurl himself into this strange new world seemingly within moments of learning that it's real. Kalle is more reserved and suspicious. And, Johanna plays the part of a necessary balance between the two.

Naturally, though, for much of the length of Troll Hunter it will feel like you are watching some odd documentary film (kind of like watching people poke around in the woods, looking for Bigfoot - except, this time, there actually is something out there to find). While this is does a great job of providing that necessary layer of 'realism', it isn't always conducive to compelling story-telling. Interview scenes, while offering up interesting and important information to the audience, can simply drag on a little too long, for one thing - throwing off the pacing of the film, as a whole. Most damaging, though, are the three young students, themselves - whose inexperience when it comes to investigation and film-making is almost painfully obvious in the film's early moments.

This was deliberate, of course - but, it was also risky. If this were an actual documentary film, then the trio of young and inexperienced film-makers would have made it entirely unwatchable. It was only the promise of trolls, and the hope that the film gets better, that allowed me to push past the early moments, where the film was entirely focused on them. The three all seem like talented young actors, but the fact that they are stuck playing a trio of college kids, out to make an amateurish documentary, doesn't really do them any favours. Of course, as I mentioned earlier, things do get better soon enough - and, the three do become much more likable once they invest themselves in the whole troll hunting process.

The trolls, themselves, are another of the film's clear high-lights. There is something almost comical about their design - yet, at the same time, they manage to be both grotesque and genuinely threatening. Really, they're just like the creatures from the folk-lore that inspired them. They are each well-realised CGI creations - offering some fairly clear proof that CGI doesn't always have to be garish and intrusive.

In the end, Troll Hunter was a pleasant surprise for me. As someone who has come to view 'found footage' films as little more than a tired gimmick, I wasn't really expecting to enjoy the film as much as I did. It is a great example of how to do these sorts of films right - even if they whole 'found footage' documentary structure does seem to work against the film, itself, at times. If you can stomach the occasional bit of 'shaky-cam', then it is well worth your time.

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