Unlike some other films fests, Screamfest only runs on a single screen, so there's no need to choose what to see the way one does at Fantastic Fest or Sundance or whatever. As long as I'm able to get myself to the theater, I go, often knowing nothing - sometimes not even the title - of what I'm about to see. It's my favorite way to see a movie, with zero "hype" or anticipation or pre-conceived bias, but unfortunately it's rarely possible to see something this way, which is why I look forward to Screamfest as it's easy to avoid knowing too much beforehand (and it's right around the corner from my office, making it pretty easy to get to for most nights it runs). But after a half hour or so of The Unthinkable (Swedish title: Den blomstertid nu kommer), I had to run into the lobby to look at a synopsis on my phone, because I still couldn't tell exactly what the movie was about or even what kind of horror movie it was.
Well as it turns out it's not a horror movie at all, and even calling it a thriller would be a bit of a stretch. It's actually closer to character driven wartime drama than anything you might think of as a "thriller". In fact, it reminded me in some ways of the structure (not the content) of Craig Zahler's films, where any plot synopsis you read will likely describe the film's second half/third act because it sounds more exciting even though it's somewhat spoiling the film. Indeed, I instantly regretted peeking at the festival's brief write-up, as it did indeed give away something that the movie was building toward and hadn't actually happened yet. Not that it was a huge surprise or anything, but still, I wish I had found out that thing would happen when it actually did, nearly an hour later.
I'll do my best to describe it without giving much away. Our protagonist is Alex (Christoffer Nordenrot, who wrote the script along with director Victor Danell), who we meet in 2005 as a teenager. He's a shy kid who crushes on Anna (Lisa Henni), a friend who bonds with him over their love of music, and seemingly is waiting for him to make a move - preferably before her and her mother move a few towns away. He's also the only child to parents who don't seem to get along all that well, with a father (Jesper Barkselius) named Bjorn who is struggling to provide for his family and occasionally lets his temper get the better of him. Things come to a head on Christmas when Alex asks for a guitar and Bjorn claims it's too expensive - and then sets about making one in his workshop as a surprise. Unfortunately he neglects to tell his wife about his thoughtful gesture, and she goes and buys one (without telling her husband), which not only makes his hard work go to waste, but the wife's defiance makes him angry enough to smash both guitars to bits. The mom leaves as a result, and Alex follows shortly thereafter, moving to the city and living (squatting, I think?) in an apartment that had an old piano left behind. Alex begins to teach himself to play, and in a pretty terrifically staged dissolve, we flash forward to the present day, where he is now an acclaimed musician and not staying in contact with Anna or either of his parents.
It was around this time that I went outside to check the plot, because all of this was around a half hour of the movie and there wasn't even a hint of horror. The somber mood had me thinking it would be some kind of supernatural thing (i.e. Alex returns home and is haunted by his now-deceased mother or father's ghost?), but no - we eventually discover that Sweden is the target of Russian attacks, and the film is more or less how our characters (including Bjorn, who works at a power plant that might be one of the Russians' targets) deal with their own mistakes in life and possibly reconnect as their world crumbles around them. Anna's mother works for the government, which gives us an easy "in" to some background for the war plot, but for the most part it's similar to something like Crimson Tide where we get enough information to understand the gist of it, without it really being important to the narrative. It's not a "war movie" in the traditional way - it's just the backdrop to the story of these broken people redeeming themselves and making up for the bad calls in their life.
That said, it does have a few of surprisingly stunning action scenes, largely centered on vehicular trauma. In one scene, Anna's mother finds herself on a foggy bridge and is pulled over by a cop who wants to know where she's heading, only for one car after another to slam into them - it's an astonishing, constantly escalating sequence that would make Michael Bay proud. Later, Alex and some other survivors are running for a shelter when a helicopter falls from the sky and causes trees and electrical towers to crash around them as they run (with the out of control chopper itself also adding to the threat), and it was as exciting as any Hollywood action scene I've watched this year. The film was apparently partly funded by crowdfunding, but you'd never know it - the production value was higher than a number of the traditionally-funded films I saw at the fest.
But it's the character stuff that really floored me in the end. Without spoiling specifics, one of the Russians' weapons causes memory loss, and that plays heavily into the film's third act, as Alex, Bjorn, and others start to realize how much of their lives they have wasted being apart from the people who loved them, now that they are at risk of forgetting they ever existed. Sacrifices are made, people finally say the things they should have years ago, etc - as the Russians never cease in their attacks. The final scene is heartbreaking as we watch the memory loss toxin take hold one last time (with a low-key Eternal Sunshine kind of sequence as someone's memories disappear), and at that point it became abundantly clear why the film had such a slow burn setup - if they raced into the war stuff, the finale would be meaningless.
We get to see Putin via some newsreel footage, making it easy to make the connection of how the film's scenario might not be particularly far-fetched, and it also made it easy to think about the growing likelihood that our own dictator will piss the wrong person off and put us in harm's way. But the overall point of the movie - starting from Alex's ruined Christmas and running until nearly the end of its two hour runtime - is how important it is to communicate. Even supporting characters seem to have regrets about how often they've picked up the phone, and there's a gut-punch moment where a character learns (via the news) that the phone call he ignored earlier was almost certainly from a family member trying to say goodbye as they knew their time was up. Don't leave things unsaid, folks - you never know when it'll be too late to do so. It's a lesson I learned too late in my own life (I think the last thing I said to my father before he unexpectedly passed concerned the parking situation at my apartment), and was a big part of why the movie worked as well as it did on me. But I won't let my fellow movie fans down - I'm here to make sure I say that it's worth seeking this one out when it comes your way.