I walked into Troll Hunter, aka Trolljegeren , expecting a campy, wacky bit of genre-bending silliness. I’m surprised and pleased to admit that it was a completely different experience that defied that expectation resoundingly. Because Troll Hunter, written and directed by André Øvredal, takes itself very, very seriously. Sort of. It’s complicated.
At first glance, it’s yet another entry in the found footage/faux documentary genre, one that has grown a bit tiresome of late. Yet it’s done with a combination of biting wit and seemingly earnest, heartfelt sincerity that it’s hard not to find the film compelling. Troll Hunter starts off as three amateur documentarians, Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud), Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen) and Johanna (Johanna Mørck) are trying to find the source of a series of bear attacks and deaths. Along the way, they stumble upon Hans (Norwegian comedian Otto Jespersen), a man reputed to be a bear poacher, but who is in fact a prolific but secretive hunter of, well, trolls. At first they meet his claims with skepticism, but a harrowing encounter in the dead of night with a massive three-headed monstrosity quickly converts them, and they opt to tag along on his nightly missions to hunt wayward trolls.
What makes the film work are three things: the serious, determined performances of the leads, clever special effects that are used sparingly but effectively, and a surprisingly meticulous attention to history and detail. The cast is mostly young and fresh-faced, a group of ambitious Michael Moore wannabes (they actually cite him as an inspiration for their continued doggedness). Their cheery, sweet-natured rapport with each other is well-portrayed and rather enjoyable to watch, and they’re clearly enjoying themselves, even as they’re asked to play through some truly ridiculous ideas. On the other hand, Hans is a grizzled, somber and solitary man who has few friends due to the secretive nature of his work (he’s actually employed by a secret government organization that has dedicated itself to secrecy for decades), who finally has someone he can share his secrets. It’s all played with ardent, impassioned sincerity that still manages to be tongue-in-cheek.
That tongue-in-cheek nature is more aptly reflected in the trolls themselves, which aren’t nearly as prevalent on the screen as you’d expect. This works as a strength and a weakness for the film. It works to its advantage because it’s not an effects-driven, soulless story. It hurts it sometimes because they get so bogged down in expository dialogue at times that you’ll find yourself thinking, “alright already, just show me some fuckin’ trolls!” Yet when they’re shown, they’re surprisingly elegant creations, despite their stony, frequently gruesome visages. There are all manner of trolls in the world of Troll Hunter — some with multiple heads, some with missing limbs, some hairy, some with gnarled, knotty pelts. They range in size from polar bear-sized to massive, 300 foot beasts that block out the sky, all with different taxonomies and subspecies.
That’s what led to the third reason that it’s a rollicking good time — is the sheer amount of information that the film claims to maintain. There’s a painstaking attention to detail in the stories of the trolls — how they mark their territories, how they mate, their histories and various idiosyncrasies. For example, did you know that their extra heads are largely superfluous, and have no brains or eyes? They’re mostly there to help attract mates, like some sort of grotesque display of peacock feathers. Or that trolls can sense Christians and have an inexplicable urge to devour them? That they live to be over 1000 years old, and their gestation period is over a decade? It’s all so serious, and yet so silly, that it creates a heady, wickedly subversive and at times uproariously funny atmosphere. It’ll likely draw comparisons to Cloverfield, but it lacks the grim, humorless demeanor of Abrams’ film. Instead, it’s funny in its seriousness, as if the film is constantly winking at the audience, daring you to question its sincerity. There are moments of genuine, heartfelt sweetness, and some pretty gripping and thrilling scenes of troll-related mayhem, all bundled into one great big goofy, enchanting package.
It’s hardly a flawless film. The pacing staggers to the point of breaking at some points, and the constant details sometimes drag on painfully. Sometimes it teeters under the weight of its own pseudo-cleverness. But it’s also so farcically well-crafted that it still manages to be an overall entertaining film — bolstered by some absolutely stunning cinematography of Norway, no doubt. Not to mention that while it’s at times disconcerting, overall the film doesn’t suffer from the usual shaky-cam dizziness that plagues other films of its ilk.
Troll Hunter is a con, in many ways. It’s a satire and a gentle slap to the face of its genre, a smart, sassy and strangely sweet tale that subverts its contemporaries while still telling an innovative, entertaining story. It’s full of trivia ranging from introspective to ridiculous to hilarious, and while it can’t always seem to decide whether or not to take itself seriously, maybe that’s not its purpose. Maybe that’s for each viewer to decide, and if you want to see it as a serious film by all means do so. I saw it as a fun as hell ride that kicks the stool out from under the faux documentary army, a blow to their oh-so-sincere efforts that still manages to charm its way into your heart. With some big, badass trolls.
Troll Hunter screened at the Independent Film Festival of Boston. This review is being reprinted because the movie is being released in limited theaters today.