'Pyromaniac': Seattle International Film Festival movie review
The Norwegian psychological drama "Pyromaniac" (screening at the 43rd Seattle International Film Festival starting May 20) is an intriguing take on an oft-overlooked crime: it attempts to reveal the inner workings of an arsonist.
In short: A small Norwegian village is under siege from an arsonist who is one of their own - 19-year-old Dag (Trond Nilssen), the son of the local fire chief. Based on a true story.
A much less interesting take on this story would have turned this story into a "whodunit" flick. The protagonist would have been some local detective trying to track down the fire starter. "Pyromaniac" elects to turn that formula on its head, instead telling the story completely from the arsonist's point of view. This allows the film to become something more intriguing - a character study of a troubled and isolated man compelled to set buildings ablaze. The film doesn't pass judgement on the arsonist, it doesn't try make him an overtly sympathetic character and it doesn't reduce him to some sort of one-dimensional fire addict.
Director Erik Skjoldbjærg has crafted another small town crime drama, much in the vein of his previous film "Insomnia" (which was remade by Christopher Nolan in 2002). Revealing the arsonist's identity upfront, in a town of just 800 residents, amplifies the tension. Those close to the arsonist have their lingering suspicions about an otherwise upstanding member of the community - but they internally struggle with their hunch.
While several key characters are greatly disturbed by the fires and their suspicions of Dag, "Pyromaniac" doesn't fully convey a town gripped by fear. This would not be a problem except the film hints at a sense of fear spreading over the town - but it fails to adequately capture an increasing sense of dread. Kids party and play at the lake while a criminal is randomly burning down buildings in the area. And it's easy to assume - because the film establishes just how small the town is - that everybody would at least know somebody whose property was targeted by the arsonist. But the film depicts a town that, by and large, is not overtly alarmed by the unsolved arsons. The underlying tone of "Pyromaniac" would be stronger if it conveyed an escalating desperation.
Final verdict: The novelty of making the criminal the protagonist gives "Pyromaniac" an innovative edge over most crime dramas - but squandering the chance to add palpable tension on the part of the community is a major missed opportunity. The end result is a fine psycho drama that could have been much more dimensional and overall entertaining.
"Pyromaniac" screening at the 2017 Seattle International Film Festival. The crime drama is unrated and has a running time of 98 minutes.