San Sebastian review: The Oath (Baltasar Kormakur)

It is somehow saddening to see that last year the Venice film festival picked Everest by Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur as the opening film mainly for its Hollywoodian assets (a cast full of stars, a feast of visually impressive scenes made possible by a generous budget), but that meanwhile the more personal and powerful works of Kormakur remain overlooked by the highest tier of film festivals. All the better for San Sebastian, which gets to present the gripping The Oath in its official competition, made by Kormakur in his homeland. The previous film he made there, The Deep, turned out to be a brilliant oblique take on superheroes myths; The Oath applies a similar treatment to another Hollywood favorite, the vigilante movie. Both genres have the habit of giving excessively simple solutions (through superpowers, or gunshots) to very complex issues, and Kormakur insists on doing just the opposite.

The main character of The Oath, Finnur (played by Kormakur himself), is a surgeon and father of two girls, the oldest of whom, Anna, has fallen in love with a drug dealer, Ottar, and become addicted to the drugs he sells. As Anna is of age and thus no longer legally his responsibility, there is not much that Finnur can do to reclaim her from this situation. So he decides to take matters into his own hands – but each drastic move he makes (threatening Ottar, calling the police on him, even taking him hostage) renders the whole predicament more complicated and dangerous for everyone involved. When he shoots or hurts someone, Finnur cannot expect it to just resolve everything in an instant, as it does in your basic vigilante movie. That is because Kormakur sets his films in the real world, where people have family and professional ties that create unforeseen repercussions to one’s decisions or sudden bursts. This way, the director can address moral questions (is it possible for Finnur to come back to the hospital and operate on a kid to save him, right after having physically endangered Ottar’s life? The answer is no), or look at society in its entirety (it will eventually emerge that fathers are always the ones who bring sorrow and pain to the people around them), without ever losing track of the stakes and the rhythm of his plot.

Moreover, Kormakur tells his stories as close as he can to what the characters experience. There was already a clear organic nature in The Deep and Everest (which got its finest scenes thanks to that), and it comes back even more vigorously here. Being a surgeon, Finnur can actually go into the flesh of people and following his example, The Oath makes its way into the bodies and into the minds of the characters involved in the story. Thus the film manages to go deeply into their dramas, even though the plot remains simple and takes only a few days to unfold. At the end of this short period of time everyone loses, and we feel how much it hurts for each of them because of how thoughtfully and intensely the movie has looked into their existences. It is from daily human life that tragedy emerges, through its sharp and cautious observation, as if by a surgical scalpel. It comes as no surprise that the ending is as blunt and ironical as Hitchcock knew how to carry them out perfectly in his thrillers. Relieved from the police pressure for the time being, Finnur remains nevertheless haunted by his conscience, and most importantly by his daughter – who, in true Hitchcockian fashion, understood everything because of a tiny overlooked detail that only she and we know about.