The twisted notion of a popular “teenage suicide cult” is sick unto itself and it will unquestionably send a chill up the spine of every parent. While Danish filmmaker Jeppe Rønde’s haunting feature-length directorial debut, “Bridgend,” will certainly unnerve parents and non-parents alike, it is perhaps the underlying suggestion of the movie that’s even more disturbing: the idea that we cannot control (or protect) the ones we love from their bad choices, and the misguided free will of adolescents can be distorted towards the darkest of places.
Though “Bridgend” is no horror movie, the emotionally unsettling aspects of the film, while subtle, do recall the shocking response to Ben Wheatley’s “Kill List,” or, to a lesser extent, recent Sundance spooker, “The Witch.” “Bridgend” finds both its title and story ripped from the headlines. Beginning in 2007, a sudden rash of suicides broke out in in the titular small town in South Wales. Dozens of teens and young adults were discovered hanged, and the numbers only grew. Eerily, almost none left suicide notes and almost all the youths either knew each other or were somehow connected. According to the 2014 documentary of the same name, over 70 teens have committed suicide in Bridgend since 2007, and the epidemic brought on panic, gruesome speculation, and media sensationalism on an international scale.
Most of all, the scourge and mysteriousness of these tragedies produced frantic terror. Police and residents were left baffled, various conspiracy theories and suspicious conjectures of foul play were raised, but authorities were never able to pinpoint one specific threat or credible cause. This is here where Rønde’s chilling interests lie: the hauntingly unexplained intersection of impressionable, uncontrollable teens, their mysterious impulses, and the alarming power of hive mind authority.
A provocative film that eventually blazes to a searing finish, “Bridgend” begins with Sara (“Game Of Thrones” star Hannah Murray), a young teenager relocated from Bristol to the Welsh county borough in question. Her single father (Steven Waddington) has moved them to South Wales because he is the chief investigator of this mystifying suicide outbreak. While apprehensive at first, it doesn’t take long for the teenage Sara, hoping to fit in, to become entangled with a local group of moody and troubled teens. Their bizarre ritualistic celebrations of deceased friends are terrifying, as they swim in cold streams at night and evoke primal howls at the moon. If not quite martyrdom, the glorification does echo into the night.
Local teen, Laurel (Elinor Crawley), befriends Sara and introduces her to the group, but the friendly advances are more like recruitment. But better to fit in than stand out. The alpha males of the group, Thomas (Scott Arthur) and Jamie (a very excellent Josh O’Connor), assert their dominance, but to what end is unclear, especially when Thomas suddenly becomes another growing casualty of the Bridgend suicides. Already disaffected from all adults around them, Sara’s own narrative conveniently follows suit. As her father delves deeper into his case, it backfires on him as the disillusioned girl, estranged from her dad, falls in deeper with this clandestine cabal. As she begins to become intimate with Jamie, the tension coils for what feels like a foreboding fait accompli.
“Bridgend” moodily plays with the idea of the misunderstood teen, but takes it to an eerie next level. These young adults aren’t simply estranged, they’ve adopted inexplicable ideologies fundamentally opposed to their guardians and all forms of authority. What those philosophies are exactly are wisely kept at bay; the unspoken is the films power, and the unknown only keeps us more intrigued and anxious. One of the many brilliant elements of “Bridgend” is how it uses Sara’s POV for and against the audience. Initially, she is the window to this secretive sect, but as she becomes indoctrinated, she walks deeper into shadow, closing the door on the viewer as if rejecting a friend.
While Rønde’s movie does have thriller aspects to it, the picture’s most potent assets are its striking formalistic choices and its tenebrous embrace of ambiguity. While the ghostly picture certainly suggests a teen suicide cult conspiracy, what is so scary is how it keeps all true intentions obfuscated. A blistering nihilism throbs through the drama too, as anguish, teen angst, and alienation pulse around the raw edges. The disconcerting characteristic of the elusive teens is their lack of confusion. If whatever propels them to the edge like hypnotized lemmings is inexplicable, their commitment comes with lucid purpose.
A quadruple threat, cinematographer, writer, director, and even composer, Rønde’s portentous milieu is arresting. A sinister dread pulses through “Bridgend,” one that is engrossing and terrifying. As the movie reaches its scorching conclusion — aided by a visceral score by French agro-electronic artist Mondkopf and the sweltering texture of the sound design — its intensity reaches distressing levels. A troubling picture of bruising proportions, “Bridgend” strikes fearful chords with the concept of enigmatic influence and the inexorable power of clique-driven suggestion. In its final moments, the nightmarish drama suggests the world around us is on fire and all we can do is watch as silent witnesses to this horror. [B+]