Despite what the likes of Tipper Gore and Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin might have you believe, movies don’t desensitize us to violence — violence desensitizes us to violence. It’s not because of “The Matrix” or “John Wick” (or whatever the scapegoat du jour) that bereaved teenagers have been forced to the front lines of America’s war of attrition against radical gun fetishists, it’s because nothing changed after Las Vegas, or Sandy Hook, or San Bernardino, or Sutherland Springs, or Orlando, or Aurora, or Virginia Tech, or Fort Hood, or Columbine, or any of the tens of thousands of other shooting deaths that have happened in this country between the ones we all know by name. It’s because every senseless death makes the next one that much more unreal — easier to believe but harder to imagine.
If anything, movies have the power to re-sensitize us to violence, restoring some terrible shape to the mass horrors we’ve negligently allowed to become abstractions. That’s the ultimate effect of Erik Poppe’s “U-July 22,” an almost unbearably harrowing recreation of the 2011 massacre on Norway’s Utøya island. Shot entirely in a single long-take and possessed by a you-are-there verisimilitude that’s capable of reincarnating a grim tragedy as a gripping entertainment, the film has the power to make our bodies catch up with our hearts — the power to help us safely experience the kind of terror we need to remember in a way that makes it impossible for us to forget.
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Of course, that kind of power comes at a heavy price. The ethical value and ultimate purpose of aestheticizing an atrocity remains one of cinema’s most persistent and necessary questions; the more compelling the depiction, the more suspect its intentions. That makes “U-July 22” as ripe for scrutiny and debate as anything since “Elephant” or “United 93.” In a way, Poppe’s film even starts by conceding its own futility, as the first thing we see — aside from some ominous surveillance footage of the Oslo attack earlier that day — is a girl looking into the camera and declaring: “You’ll never understand.”
Her name is Kaja (19 year-old Andrea Berntzen), she’s one of the fictional composites that Anna Bache-Wiig and Siv Rajendram Eliassen’s screenplay uses to stand in for the kids who were on Utøya for a Workers’ Youth Leage summer camp, and we learn that she’s actually talking to her mom on the phone. It’s a strange way of setting the scene, a cheeky visual gag that knocks us off balance and introduces a degree of artifice before completely immersing us in the hell of what’s to come. The effect is that of a film at war with itself, compelled by the potential catharsis of re-staging modern Norway’s greatest nightmare, but uneasy at the prospect of forcing the country (in addition to the cast and crew) to relive a fresh trauma.
From there, “U-July 22” casually introduces a handful of memorable characters, though the handheld camera stays glued to Kaja at all times (even in the event that Poppe hid a few different cuts in the film, this would still be an olympian example of camera operating). They’re all just kids, some younger than others. As in “Elephant,” most of their conversations are honest and banal and focused on their future plans. We follow Kaja into her tent, see her suffer through a quick spat with her homesick younger sister, and even get to watch as she’s hit on by a goofy dude named Magnus (Aleksander Holmen) who hasn’t even heard about the bombing that happened back on the mainland.
And then, in a moment that’s hard to distinguish from the one before it, a shot rings out. And then another. Firecrackers? Maybe. It sounds like they’re coming from every direction at once. Then a group of teens run by screaming. Everyone scrambles for the hills — nobody has any idea what’s happening. A group of scared kids hides behind a tree, bickering in panicked whispers as they try to get a cell phone signal. Kaja is only interested in finding her sister, eventually running towards the unknown monster who’s terrorizing the island.
Truth be told, the closest cinematic reference point is probably “Cloverfield,” as Poppe’s direction assumes the dark expectancy of a found-footage horror movie (the cinematography here is much steadier). A small handful of moments almost feel too scripted, especially in the final 10 minutes, but one of the most disturbing things about “U-July 22” is how so many of its most structured beats — like a girl receiving a phone call from mom just seconds after crying for her with her dying breath — only feel overwritten until the movie ends and you have time to grapple with how realistic they really are. It also helps that Poppe’s cast is uniformly magnificent and uncomfortably convincing, just as it helps to learn that Poppe had psychologists on set to counsel them.
In a more general sense, it’s hard to judge if this film is appropriating genre tropes for cheap thrills or using them to more viscerally communicate the terror of that day, but these 21st century massacres have been gripped by a sickeningly cinematic sensibility that might render the distinction irrelevant. Maybe that’s why the best and scariest horror films of recent years (e.g. “Get Out,” “The Witch,” and “The Babadook”) have been firmly grounded in metaphor; what impact could a slasher movie really have when kids in real life are frantically texting their last goodbyes from the woods near their summer camp — when, halfway around the world, the events of July 22nd, 2011 seem to happen on a semi-automatic basis?
Of course, “U-July 22” doesn’t take place in the United States, and this critic is obviously looking at the film through the blood-spattered lens that his country has provided him. But while Poppe is most responsible to the Norwegian audience — and it would be impossibly arrogant for any outsider to presume how that native crowd will (or should) respond to this in a place where there has not been another mass shooting since — the movie is surprisingly light on specifics. Or perhaps, out of respect to the uncanny accuracy with which Poppe recreated the events on an island right near Utøya, it would be more accurate to say that his film makes a conscious effort to be as inclusive as possible.
The shooter is never mentioned by name, either in the action or in the title cards that open and close the movie. That, as well as the decision to keep the killer at a distance (as much of a disembodied specter as the Germans were in “Dunkirk”), gives the impression that “U-July 22” is as much a portrait of the banality of evil as it a memorial to this one particularly scarring example. Poppe knows that Americans will watch this and see a “Parkland,” that the French will be confronted with memories of the Bataclan, that Canadians will be returned to École Polytechnique, and that Australians old enough to remember why their country changed its gun laws will think of Port Arthur. That broadness eventually bends back on the film itself, as the long-take approach invariably pushes you out of the movie for a second or two whenever you wonder at how Poppe organized all of this, and if maybe there should be an Oscar for Best First Assistant Director.
Fortunately, the gimmick pays off more often than not, as stretching the massacre into one linear strip of time allows a lizard brain level of appreciation for how quickly the world can be turned upside down; how much trauma can be packed into just 72 minutes. There may be no right way to depict an atrocity — it’s possible there are only an infinite number of wrong ones — but for this viewer, “U-July 22” helped close the gap between the unimaginable and its victims. One hopes Kaja is right to think that we’ll never understand, and that her story will make it that much harder for us to stop trying.
“U-July 22” premiered in Competition at the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.