Playing in the Thrill section of the 2016 London Film Festival, Pyromaniac is a moody, elemental psychodrama set in an isolated Norwegian village sometime in the late 1960s-early 70s. An increasingly paranoid rural community falls prey to the titular firestarter but this stirring Erik Skjoldbjærg-directed feature, full of teenage angst, yearning and fury, is more whydunnit than whodunnit as the guilty party – at least for an audience – is immediately apparent. “Olav, he’s here.” says a terrified old lady, peering through her front door into the approaching dark of night; in a ferocious opening sequence a house is engulfed in flames.
Pyromaniac is disconcerting throughout but sits on a dull, rusty edge from this moment forward. In the next scene – and ‘Three weeks earlier’ – 19 year-old Dag (Trond Nilssen, whose glacial stare and vacant mien are key to the film’s success) sets a heap of wood alight. A viewer witnesses this but family, townsfolk and police stumble in the dark. It is an interesting perspective to take and the concept of a close-knit community being forced to look inwards for the root of this oppressive evil, after initially suspecting outside influences, is capably navigated by Skjoldbjærg. Returning to his hometown after military service, Dag, the smart kid at school, is looked upon with some suspicion and disdain as rather an oddball. A concerned mother (Liv Bernhoft Osa) thinks her son needs an occupation to keep him occupied and out of trouble.
Little does Dag’s mother know that her son is the one fuelling local terror. The bitter irony of his father (Per Frisch) being the volunteer fire chief is not overplayed and Dag’s assistance in fighting the fires he lights strikes as a desperate attempt to bond with and emulate his old man. As realisation grows in his parents they are morally plagued by love for their only child and doing the right thing. The seductive power of fire incites Dag but he seems equally as keen to reap the hero status of being a fireman by putting them out. His motivations evolve and as the prologue indicates the seriousness of his obsession escalates over time.
As news of the menacing goings on hit national TV and hearsay as to who is responsible is on all petrified lips, Dag’s sense of worth, validation and self-importance balloons. He fills demand with supply and there is a flicker of glee in his eyes as he constructs his own narrative for the police to stumble around. The ear-piercing wail of a warning siren pierces the rugged wilderness silence with increasing regularity but a melodic, methodical pace tempers momentum. This attention-craving, confused, inscrutable moth is drawn to ever growing flames and Pyromaniac has a similarly compulsive appeal.
The BFI London Film Festival takes place from 5-16 October. Book your tickets at bfi.org.uk/lff.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens