The dour humor that marked Icelandic thesp-turned-director Baltasar Kormakur's "101 Reykjaviik" and "The Sea" isn't enough to salvage -- or cohere -- his English-language "A Little Trip to Heaven." Rural noir, ostensibly set in northern Minnesota but mostly shot in Iceland, is a classic case of directorial talent lost in translation. As with many other maiden efforts abroad, this one feels like ESL Cinema, its narrative gone murky, characters undeveloped, sense of place dislocated, fuzzy overall intent ill-compensated for by quirky touches. Despite toplining presences of Forest Whitaker and Julia Stiles, this watchable misfire looks to hit Ancillary Town fast.
Stab at a showy action opening piles up three separate car crashes in the first reel; their import isn't clarified until later. First, a young couple driving on what looks like a perilous coastline gets ejected from their car as it careens off a cliff. Swimming to shore, the girl grabs a nearby steel pipe and smashes the boy's legs with relish, as if to make sure he knows this is the end of their relationship.
Next, an urban transit bus is crowded with passengers after a collision -- but how many of them boarded after the incident, hoping to cash in on the victims' monetary settlement? That's a question posed by Holt (Whitaker), who scares the posers away by telling them a hidden videocamera will expose them to police. Many leave -- not realizing this is a bluff, and that Holt isn't a cop but an insurance investigator trying to minimize company payout.
Finally, a longhaired, late night traveler has his gas tank drained while he's taking a break from a blizzard in a tavern. When his car stalls shortly thereafter, the culprit picks him up and promptly slams them both into a tunnel wall. By the time cops show up, there's just one passenger in the vehicle -- and he's charred beyond recognition.
Holt goes to the hinterlands to investigate. Identification found on the corpse suggests he's the well-known scam artist brother of local resident Isold (Stiles), who lives in squalor with young son Thor (Alfred Harmsworth) and husband Fred (Jeremy Renner). All three act like they've got a whole lot of secrets to hide.
"Little Trip" recalls the many offbeat, low-key '70s U.S. suspensers that valued milieu and character over genre thrills (Arthur Penn's "Night Moves" being a classic example). But the tonal echo is only that, as the pic fails to etch a convincing setting, create fleshed-out characters, or build basic tension. Humor at the expense of dumb townies (notably a horny, plus-sized female bartender) feels condescending, idiosyncratic individual sequences dangle unmoored, and dialogue frequently sounds like a foreigner's idea of what rural Yanks would say, drawn from other movies. Even the overall plot comes across as convoluted, its ironies arriving minus emotional resonance.
While few viewers will find satisfaction in the result, this is still the kind of movie that maintains a certain interest because it makes one wonder how it will pull itself together -- even if, finally, it doesn't.
On the plus side, visual contributions make a frosty atmospheric cocktail of winter exteriors; soundtrack likewise goes for flavorful kitsch 'n' twang. While Stiles is working to create a naturalistic woman-in-peril, Whitaker's shambling company sleuth doesn't quite come into focus (and what's with that high, quasi-Irish lilt?). Renner and Peter Coyote (as Holt's home office supervisor) are OK in one-dimensional roles.
Tech aspects are good. Post the Toronto preem, pic is being re-cut prior to further showings.
Camera (color), Ottar Gudnason; editors, Virginia Katz, Richard Pearson; music, Mugison; production designer, Karl Juliusson; art direction, Eggert Ketilsson; costume designer, Helga I. Stefansdottir; sound (Dolby Digital), Kjartan Kjartansson; assistant director, Leifur Dagfinnsson; casting, Liora Reich. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 12, 2005. Running time: 105 MIN.