Godland movie review & film summary (2023)

Soon, “Godland” takes a familiar shape, more like a tragic parable about Ragnar, a reluctant seeker, and Lucas, a stingy community leader, and their complimentary derangement and irreconcilable differences. This story, about two men who need but cannot trust each other, ultimately bookends and gives capital “M” meaning to “Godland,” the latest slow-burning mood piece by the Icelandic writer/director Hlynur Pálmason (“A White, White Day”). 

Some supporting characters fill out the plot and help to establish the influence and nature of the title location, especially Carl (Jacob Hauberg Lohmann), a gruff and withdrawn local, and his two daughters: his eldest, Anna (Vic Carmen Sonne), rumored to be Lucas’ prospective wife; and Ida (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir), Carl’s youngest. 

Carl’s children remind us that “Godland,” like many great westerns, is about the uncertainty and tension that presides over frontier settlements. The key distinction is that “Godland” is about life on a frontier that was tentatively established sometime before these characters showed up. That’s also what the movie’s about, a poisonous colonial inheritance of suspicion, dependence, and entitlement. 

Carl and Ragnar do not trust Lucas because he represents a faith and therefore a societal order that presumes to take theirs under its wing. Carl and Ragnar also want to be more like Lucas, even if he literally cannot understand them. (He doesn’t speak their language and frequently needs Anna to translate for him.) Lucas photographs the locals and even insists on taking the more arduous path from Denmark to his new home, while Carl wonders why Lucas didn’t just sail. 

A diligent missionary, Lucas says he wants to get acquainted with the Icelandic people and their land. Then again, while that might have been Lucas’ goal when he set out, he’s soon changed by the harsh reality that confronts him. So Lucas unwittingly assumes the antagonistic role that Ragnar immediately projects onto him in an early scene when he tells a violent story about a woman who cheats on her husband with a group of men. 

The baggage these two men drop at each other’s feet is instantly understood because it’s fairly obvious. Ragnar tries to connect with Lucas repeatedly and with startling regularity, but again, Lucas doesn’t speak his language and, more importantly, doesn’t want to. Lucas photographs his surroundings using the now antique daguerreotype process, which requires on-camera subjects to remain perfectly still for several seconds. This fussy artistic process not only helped inspire the look of “Godland”—filmed and presented in a boxy Academy aspect ratio—but also gives Pálmason a neat way to illustrate the differences between Lucas and Ragnar and their resistance to social expectations that must seem apparent to everyone but them.

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