Thelma would have you think it’s about a young woman breaking free of her restrictive religious upbringing. It would have you think it’s a coming of age story about empowerment and independence. And it partly is. But the genius of this quiet thriller is how it decides it’s also going to be something else.
Thelma is a very Norwegian not-quite-fable written and directed by Joachim Trier. Like Lars von Trier (some relation), his movie is rife with imagery, but not overtly powerful. He has all the craft of Lars von Trier, but none of the bad boy auteur pretensions. He mostly gets out of the way and lets his script and actors do the work. And much of the stylized imagery is of the “blink and you’ll miss it” variety. It mostly invokes religion so the dialogue doesn’t have to. There are a few brief conversations about religion, but the movie would prefer to express it visually than verbally. The snake in the Garden, Creation, forgiveness and miraculous healing, punishment and hellfire, baptism, the fall of a sparrow. All of that is in the movie, and it’s all very deliberate without being overt or sometimes without even being real.
Actress Eili Harboe is a revelation. She is as fiercely frail as Garance Merillier in Raw. She is as luminous as Saorise Ronan in Hannah, as disarming as Sissy Spacek in Carrie. She is of a piece with Ingrid Bergman for the strength and stillness of her performance in Thelma. She’s a lovely young woman, and from certain angles, she looks almost otherworldly. She shines with a secret wisdom. Thelma is the center of the world, and all its mysteries are within her. What a terrible power and what a terrible burden.
There’s a scene in Assassination of Jesse James when Brad Pitt’s Jesse James sees a fish swimming under the ice of a frozen lake. It inspires his suicide monologue about “once you’ve seen the other side, you no more want to return to your body than spoon up your own puke.” He pulls his gun and shoots at it. It’s Assassination of Jesse James in a nutshell. There’s a scene in Thelma when a young Thelma sees a fish swimming under the ice of a frozen lake. The little girl, barely old enough to talk, regards it. She exchanges a look with her father. It is more than you could possibly know at that moment. And it is Thelma in a nutshell.
There is not a single scene, exchange, or even flicker of light that doesn’t fit into the puzzle of what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen, and more importantly, what it all means. You couldn’t possibly lunderstand the intricacy and intent of Thelma without seeing it a second time.
There have been some truly remarkable movies lately about young women finding their places in the world and empowering themselves in the process. They are variously celebratory like Eighth Grade, wry and honest like Edge of Seventeen, wistful like Leave No Trace, keenly observant like Ladybird, and even bloody like Raw. But none is as haunting as Thelma.